Dwight Eisenhower – a summary

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.

Dwight D EisenhowerAfter 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.

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Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire – review

‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Into the Jaws of Death - coverOn 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.

Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.

A Bleak Time

Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.

Britain’s high command was gripped by fear of Germany’s huge battleship, the Tirpitz, a massive ship, a sixth of a mile long. Its sister ship, the Bismarck, had been sunk in May 1941, but the Tirpitz still roamed large. The only dry dock on the French coast capable of accommodating such a ship was to be found at the port Saint-Nazaire, a town of some 50,000 people. If the Normandie dock, as it was called, the largest dry dock in the world at the time, could be put out of action, then the Tirpitz’s activity in the Atlantic would be severely constrained.

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Bernard Montgomery – a summary

The son of a bishop, Bernard Montgomery, or ‘Monty’, was born in London but spent his early years in Tasmania. He fought during much of the First World War, and was twice badly wounded. An obstinate individual, he fell out with his mother to such an extent that when she died in 1949, he refused to attend her funeral. Training to be an army officer at Sandhurst he was demoted for having set a fellow student on fire and during First World War he allegedly caught a German by kneeing him in the testicles.

Bernard MontgomeryThe early death of his wife in 1937 from septicaemia, caused by an insect bite, devastated Monty and from then on, he devoted himself entirely to his career.

El Alamein

Self-confident in the extreme, prone to odd headwear, Montgomery was adored by his men, especially during the Second World War desert campaigns in North Africa during which he made his name by defeating Erwin Rommel at El Alamein. But he frequently clashed with his American counterparts and, because of his immense self-pride, took offence easily. Having planned the successful invasion of Sicily, he believed himself worthy of being in overall command of the Italian campaign, and took great umbrage at having to work under Dwight Eisenhower.

In December 1943, Montgomery was appointed land commander, again under Eisenhower, for Operation Overlord, the planned invasion of France. His D-Day objectives included the capture of Caen within the first 24 hours. In the event, it took several weeks and proved costly, for which he was heavily criticised. During the chaotic days of mid-June, his American counterparts felt that Montgomery’s strategy was too cautious and hoped to have him replaced, a view endorsed by Churchill. But Montgomery held onto his post and his tactics did draw much enemy attention to the east of the Allies’ bridgehead, allowing the Americans to successfully breakout from the west.

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Juan Pujol Garcia – a summary

Juan Pujol Garcia was unique among Second World War agents – he was the only one to offer his services as a double agent as opposed to all others who had been captured and ‘turned’. Bespectacled, balding and timid, Pujol was not the image usually associated with a double agent, let alone Britain’s most effective one.

Joan Pujol GarciaBorn in Barcelona on 14 February 1912, Pujol was working on a chicken farm when, in 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. He managed to fight for both the Republican side and the Nationalists. He was committed to neither and hated the extreme views they each represented. By the end of the war, he was able to claim that he had served in both armies without firing a single bullet for either.

For the good of humanity

He emerged from the experience with an intense dislike for extreme ideologies and, for the ‘good of humanity’, sought to help achieve a more moderate system. With the outbreak of war in 1939, three times he approached British services in Lisbon and Madrid, offering to spy for them, only to be turned away without an interview. Undeterred, Pujol decided to become a double agent. He offered his services to the German Abwehr service based also in Lisbon, offering to spy on the English, claiming that as a diplomat working in London, he knew England well. His audacity was certainly impressive – he had never visited England, nor could he speak the language, and he had forged a British passport without ever having seen a real one. Incredibly, the Germans fell for the story, put him through an intensive training course, and supplied him with the tools of the trade: invisible ink, cash, and a codename – Arabel, and sent him on assignment to England with instructions to build a network of spies.

Agent Arabel

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Omar Bradley – a brief summary

Born 12 February 1893 in Missouri, Omar Bradley fought on the Western Front during the last months of the First World War. His father, a schoolteacher who had married one of his pupils, died in 1908 while Omar was still only thirteen.

Omar BradleyIn 1943, during the Second World War, Bradley led US troops onto Sicily. The following year, based in London, he was given command of American troops assigned to the Normandy landings. His immediate commander was Bernard Montgomery. After a battle of attrition, he led the capture of Cherbourg, then into the town of Avranches. On 1 August 1944, Bradley was given command of the US Twelfth Army Group, consisting of one and quarter million troops, the largest US army ever assigned to a single general.

Bradley’s army fought in the Ardennes, during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 – January 1945, and were among the Allied troops who shook hands with their Soviet counterparts on the River Elbe in April 1945.

Post-war, Bradley served on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and in 1950 was appointed ‘General of the Army’, the highest rank in the US army.  He oversaw US strategy during the Korean War and retired in 1953, a month after the end of the war. Although retired, he advised President Lyndon Johnson on military policy during the Vietnam War.

His memoirs, A Soldier’s Story, were published in 1951.

Omar Bradley died on 8 April 1981, aged 88, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Untitled-1Rupert Colley.

D-Day: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is due for publication 24 April 2014.

Dr Josef Mengele: The Angel of Death – a summary

In addition to being sites of slave labour and human annihilation, many Nazi concentration camps also functioned as medical experimentation centres throughout the Holocaust. Under the guise of researching new treatments or investigating racial eugenics, doctors conducted painful and often fatal experiments on thousands of prisoners without consent. The man most commonly associated with these pseudo-medical experiments is Dr Josef Mengele, whose notoriety among the inmates of Auschwitz earned him the nickname ‘the Angel of Death’.

Josef MengeleJosef Mengele was born on 16 March 1911, the eldest of three brothers. He studied in both Munich and Frankfurt, specializing first in philosophy and then in medicine. He shared Hitler’s racial views, believing in the supremacy of the Aryan people, and joined the Nazi Party in 1937. Mengele served in the medical corps on the Eastern Front from 1940, but returned to Germany in early 1943 after sustaining an injury. No longer able to fight, he arrived at Auschwitz in the spring of 1943, where his cruel experiments on prisoners swiftly made him more infamous than any of the other camp physicians.

An Obsession with Twins

Auschwitz-Birkenau was both a concentration camp and an extermination centre, thus from the summer of 1942, whenever new convoys of Jewish deportees arrived at Auschwitz, there would be a selection to determine which people were fit to work and which would be killed. Mengele was regularly involved in these selections on the arrivals ramp, where in addition to deciding which of the incoming prisoners would perish immediately, he searched for twins and people with unusual physical conditions.

Mengele had a particular obsession with twins and conducted experiments on around 1,500 pairs of siblings during his time at Auschwitz, the majority of whom were young Jewish or Romani children. If one twin died, the other would also be killed so that he could perform a comparative autopsy. Mengele’s fascination with twins may have been linked to the Nazi desire for an increased Aryan birth rate.

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Franklin D Roosevelt and Churchill – a summary

America’s longest serving, President, Franklin D Roosevelt, proved an absolutely crucial ally to Winston Churchill and Britain during the early years of World War Two. Later disagreements about strategy meant that the relationship between the two men cooled from 1943, and Churchill declined to attend Roosevelt’s funeral. They shared an understanding of the threat posed by Nazi Germany, although in Roosevelt’s case, operating in a society deeply isolationist in sentiment. Despite this, he facilitated American rearmament, lend-lease, and a robust naval policy towards Germany that came very close to war.

Franklin D RooseveltIt was Roosevelt who struck up the personal correspondence with Churchill which proved so productive. In those years they had a strong rapport, sharing an interest in naval affairs. Like Churchill, Roosevelt had been responsible for naval policy prior to and during World War One. Hence, once he became Prime Minister, Churchill’s famous  ‘former naval person’ sign-off. In fact, they were both former naval persons.

Roosevelt came from a wealthy New York family and was a lawyer by profession. Both he and his wife Eleanor were active Democrats. In 1910 he entered the New York Senate and in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary for the Navy. By 1920 he was on the vice-presidential ticket for the Democrats, though they lost the election. The following year he contracted the polio which was to partially paralyse him.   Roosevelt tried to hide his condition whenever he could, yet it changed him psychologically as well as physically. Many around him noted a much more compassionate, less arrogant man.


As Governor of New York state during the Great Depression, Roosevelt was critical of the Hoover administration and introduced a raft of policies to actively tackle unemployment. Notwithstanding this, he fought the 1932 Presidential election on a platform of national deficit reduction. It was only once in office, as the 32nd US president, confronted with the enormity of the economic slump, that Roosevelt was persuaded by his advisors to change tack. His famous New Deal measures included employment programmes, bank reform and public works. He also scrapped the Prohibition laws.

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Douglas MacArthur – a brief summary

Born on an army base in Arkansas, Douglas MacArthur came from a proud military lineage. His father had been a Union general in the American Civil War and MacArthur sought to follow in his footsteps. Highly gifted academically, he qualified for West Point in 1899. Despite the bullying culture he found there, MacArthur worked hard and scored 98 per cent when he passed out, serving as First Captain during his final year.

Douglas MacArthur smokingHe took up a position in the prestigious engineering corps and his first assignment, in 1903, was to the Philippines, then a US colony. This was followed by an extensive tour of Asia accompanying his father, who remained a senior army officer and had pulled strings to secure his son’s appointment as his secretary. They returned in 1906, Douglas MacArthur having become fascinated by the continent and convinced of its importance for US foreign policy.

Rainbow Division

From 1912 until America joined the First World War in 1917, MacArthur worked in Washington, first with the Chief of Staff and then in establishing the army’s Bureau of Information. It was during this period that his remarkable administrative talents began to be noticed. However, the arrival of war persuaded him that he should attempt to obtain a posting to France. The 42nd ‘Rainbow Division’ – a mixed unit composed of National Guard regiments from across the USA – was his idea. He, therefore, secured a position as its Chief of Staff. Despite the staff role, MacArthur served with distinction and bravery throughout his time in the trenches. He was decorated by both America and France.

After the war he was appointed Superintendent of West Point, where he was able to introduce reforms to tackle some of the bad practice he had experienced for himself. In 1922 he married and was transferred to the Philippines. Promoted to Major General in 1925, he commanded IV and then III Corps. Depressed after separating from his wife in 1927 (they divorced in 1929), he threw himself into the leadership of the 1928 US Olympic Committee.

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Galeazzo Ciano – a summary

In 1930, the dashing and rich 27-year-old Galeazzo Ciano married Edda Mussolini, daughter to the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Six years later, he became Mussolini’s foreign minister. Yet, on 11 January 1944, on his father-in-law’s orders, he was executed.

© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporationGaleazzo Ciano’s father had made a name for himself as an admiral during the First World War. An early supporter of Benito Mussolini’s, he built his fortune through some unethical business deals. Thus, Galeazzo, born 18 March 1903, was brought up in an environment of wealth and luxury, and inherited his father’s love for fascism. Father and son both took part in Mussolini’s 1922 ‘March on Rome’.

Diplomacy and Marriage

Ciano studied law before embarking on a diplomatic career which took him to South America and China. In between postings, on 30 April 1930, he married Edda Mussolini, hence becoming Mussolini’s son-in-law – facilitating a rapid rise up the promotional ladder. The couple were to have three children although Ciano, like his father-in-law, had numerous affairs. He was certainly disliked by his mother-in-law who, understandably, thoroughly disproved of his womanizing.

In 1935, Mussolini made Ciano his minister for propaganda. The same year, Ciano volunteered for action in Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, serving in a bomber squadron and reaching the rank of captain. He returned to a hero’s welcome and in June 1936, aged only 33, Mussolini appointed him minister of foreign affairs, replacing Mussolini himself. (Ciano’s father, meanwhile, was serving as the president of the Chamber of Deputies, a post he held from 1934 to shortly before his death in 1939).

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Rutka Laskier – a summary

Rutka Laskier was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1929, the eldest of two children. Her exact date of birth is unknown, but is generally considered to be 12 June 1929, the same date as Anne Frank. Her father was a prosperous banker and Rutka enjoyed a relatively carefree childhood in the 1930s, learning to ski on family holidays and making many friends at her private school. Like millions of Jews in Europe, however, Rutka’s life was irrevocably altered with the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939, when Nazi troops invaded Poland.

Rutka LaskierRutka’s hometown of Bedzin was occupied within days of the invasion and the family would have been quick to realise the danger they now faced. On 8 September, members of Bedzin’s Jewish community were burned to death while praying in the local synagogue. Such anti-Semitic brutality was commonplace and the Nazis soon began forcing Jews throughout Poland into areas of towns and cities where they were segregated from non-Jewish society.  The Laskiers were no exception: they were moved from their comfortable home into a house that the Nazis had repossessed from a Catholic family to be part of Bedzin’s new Jewish ghetto.

Ghetto Life

Conditions in the ghettos were overcrowded, unsanitary and demoralizing. Several generations often dwelled in one small room and indeed Rutka, her parents, her brother and her grandmother all shared the same cramped living space. Over three years after the start of the war, in January 1943, the teenage Rutka began writing a diary, chronicling her life in the Bedzin ghetto in sixty pages of a notebook. Among the horrors she witnessed under the Nazi occupation was the brutal murder of a Jewish baby by a German soldier. She also recounted an ‘action’ that had taken place in August 1942, when Bedzin’s Jews were herded into a local sports stadium and subjected to a selection. Rutka had been selected for hard labour on this occasion; however, she escaped by jumping from a first floor window and returned to her family.

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