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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Victor Emmanuel III – a summary

On 29 July 1900, the king of Italy, Umberto I, was assassinated. The throne passed to his 30-year-old son, who, as Victor Emmanuel III, would reign until 1946, a period which saw both world wars and the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascists.

Victor Emmanuel IIIBorn in Naples on 11 November 1869, the future king was so short, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, nicknamed him the dwarf, and, in private, Mussolini called him the ‘little sardine’. He ruled over an Italy that had been in existence as a unified nation only since 1871. Despite unification, Italy was a deeply-fragmented society, steeped in poverty and corruption, and ruled over by a succession of weak coalition governments. But, as a figurehead king, Victor Emmanuel III chose to ignore the affairs of state, preferring instead to focus on his vast collection of coins.

World War One

With the outbreak of war in July 1914, Italy initially adopted a position of neutrality despite having been in alliance, the Triple Alliance, with Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire since 1882. Victor Emmanuel favoured participation in the war, partly as a means of enhancing Italy’s reputation on the international stage. Italy duly entered the war in May 1915, not as allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but on the side of the Triple Entente allies – France, Russia and Great Britain.


After 1918, Victor Emmanuel again retired to the sidelines as Italy struggled to cope with the post-war instabilities of demobilization, unemployment and inflation. Socialists, communists, anarchists and the newly-formed fascists fought on the streets and on the farms in a vicious cycle of ever-increasing violence.

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Charles de Gaulle – a summary

Charles de Gaulle fought with great distinction during the First World War, and was thrice wounded. At the Battle of Verdun he served under Philippe Pétain, whom he greatly admired and who was to become his mentor. During the battle, on 2 March 1916, de Gaulle was taken prisoner by the Germans. He tried unsuccessfully to escape five times and was only released following the armistice in November 1918.

Charles De GaulleFollowing the Great War, de Gaulle served in Poland, Germany and the Middle East. He became convinced that future wars should rely on tanks and aircraft, thus avoiding the static stalemate of the previous war. The same conclusion had been reached in Germany but while, from 1939 the Germans acted on it, the French did not, putting far too much faith in the Maginot Line, France’s fortified line of defence along the Franco-German border built during the 1930s. Indeed, de Gaulle’s belief in mobile warfare, which he espoused in a number of books, won him many enemies within the French high command, not least from his old friend, Pétain, and may have been the cause for the lack of further promotion within the army.

Leader of all free Frenchmen

With the German invasion of France in 1940, de Gaulle, in command of a tank division, put up a gallant defence but, outnumbered, finally succumbed. France’s French prime minister, Paul Reynard, appointed de Gaulle to the ministry of war, thus de Gaulle’s military career abruptly gave way to politics.

Having served for just ten days in Reynard’s government, de Gaulle fled to England shortly before his country’s surrender to Germany. On his arrival in London, Winston Churchill recognised him as the ‘leader of all free Frenchmen, wherever they may be’.

On 17 June, Reynard was replaced by the 84-year-old Phillippe Pétain. Pétain immediately sought an armistice with the Germans, labelled de Gaulle a traitor, had him stripped of his rank and ordered him executed in absentia.

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Operation Kingfisher

I was first alerted to the possibilities behind the story, Operation Kingfisher, by a friend called Tony who has a keen interest in Inland Waterways, both in the UK and in France, writes Hilary Green. He has his own narrow boat, which is currently moored on one of the French canals. It was Tony who asked me if I knew that during the Second World War the French canal network had been used as a way to smuggle POWs and downed airmen out of the country. When I expressed my interest he sent me some photocopied pages from a book, Keeping Afloat by John Liley. These contained a reference to an extraordinary event which occurred in April 1943.

After the Allied invasion of North Africa the Germans, fearing an attack on the south coast of France, decided to move some of their warships from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Rather than taking the long sea route they decided to use the French canal system. French canals are considerably wider than the ones in the UK and carry much heavier traffic. The vedettes (small boats) were brought down the River Yonne and the intention was to take them through the Canal de Bourgogne to connect with the River Saone and thence to the Mediterranean.

Vedettes However, when they reached Laroche Migennes, where the Canal de Bourgogne meets the Yonne, they discovered that the locks on that canal were too short to accommodate the ships. A new route had to be devised and 1,500 young men were pressed into service to rebuild roads, so that the ships could be moved overland. Buildings were demolished, bends straightened out and gradients eased. The nearest slipway was in Auxerre and the residents of that town were astounded to see the spectacle of these huge craft being hauled out of the river. They were loaded onto two 48-wheeled chariots, pulled by three giant tractors, with four more at the rear to provide braking power.

It was forbidden to photograph these events but there are, nevertheless, several pictures taken clandestinely to bear witness to this amazing undertaking. Ironically, the RAF was alerted to what was happening and not one of the ships ever reached the Mediterranean!

Operation KingfisherHilary Green

These events form the background to Hilary’s new novel, Operation Kingfisher, due for publication on 29 November 2013.

Hilary’s novel, The Last Hero, is available now.

See also Hilary’s articles on the Women of the SOEEntertainment during World War Two and the Riddle of the ClayTablets.

The Italian Social Republic – a summary

Proclaimed on 23 September 1943, the Italian Social Republic was a short-lived state headed by fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Benito MussoliniThe war had been going badly for Mussolini’s Italy, so much so that a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on 25 July 1943 voted to have Mussolini removed. One of those who voted against Mussolini was his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. The following day, Mussolini was dismissed by the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III: ‘My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good. Italy has gone to bits… The soldiers don’t want to fight any more… At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’

Mussolini was immediately arrested and imprisoned. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, appointed a new cabinet which, pointedly, contained no fascists. The Italian population rejoiced.

On 8 September, Italy swapped sides and joined the Allies and, on 13 October 1943, declared war on Germany.


Meanwhile, Mussolini was kept under house arrest and frequently moved in order to keep his whereabouts hidden. On 26 August, he was moved into the Campo Imperatore Hotel, part of a ski resort high up on the mountains of Gran Sasso in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. It was here, on 12 September, that Mussolini was dramatically rescued.

Italian Social RepublicOn Hitler’s orders, Mussolini was returned to German-occupied northern Italy as the puppet head of the Italian Social Republic, based in the town of Salo on Lake Garda, hence it was often referred to as the Salo Republic. Mussolini wasn’t keen; much preferring the idea of being allowed to slip away into quiet retirement but Hitler had no intention of letting the now reluctant dictator so easily off the hook.

Having established his make-believe republic, Mussolini’s first priority was to deal with his son-in-law and other ‘traitors’ who had voted against him at the Fascist Grand Council meeting in July. Ciano had gone to Germany only to be forced back to Mussolini’s new republic. Despite the pleas of his daughter and Ciano’s wife, Edda, Mussolini had Ciano and five colleagues tried in Verona in January 1944, and five, including Ciano, were executed by firing squad on the 11 January. To add to the humiliation, they were tied to chairs and shot in the back. Ciano’s last words were ‘Long live Italy!’ Continue reading

The Rescue of Mussolini – a summary

The rescue of Mussolini: On 12 September 1943, in an audacious expedition, the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was rescued from imprisonment by a group of German commandoes.


The war was not going well for Italy and Mussolini. Campaigns against Greece and Albania had ended in ignoble defeat and things were going poorly for Italian forces fighting in North Africa. The Italian people were beginning to taste the bitter fruit of disillusionment with their leader.

Benito MussoliniOn 20 January 1943, Mussolini had a meeting with his foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, who was also his son-in-law. Believing the war to be a lost cause, Ciano urged Mussolini to seek terms with the Allies. Mussolini flatly refused. (Indeed, Ciano had approached his British counterpart, Anthony Eden, the previous November but had no joy. Ciano had been dubious about Italy’s participation in the war from the start. When, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on France, Ciano wrote in his diary, ‘I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy!’) Ciano paid for his lack of faith when, on 5 February 1943, his father-in-law sacked him from his post. Ciano took up a post within the Vatican who were also holding discussions with the Allies into the make-up of a potential non-fascist Italian government.

The end in sight

Allied troops landed on Sicily on 10 July 1943, where they enjoyed an ecstatic welcome from the islanders. By mid-August the German forces escaped the island by crossing over the narrow Strait of Messina onto the Italian mainland. Mussolini appealed to his ally, Adolf Hitler, to send reinforcements but with German forces tied up on the Eastern Front, where they had just lost the crucial Battle of Stalingrad, no help was forthcoming.

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Hitler’s English SS

THE atmosphere inside the prisoner-of-war camp was electric. Packed into a wooden theatre were several hundred Allied PoWs watched over by their German guards. Suddenly, heads started to turn and a hush fell over the throng. Two young men, dressed in the uniform of the dreaded Waffen-SS, entered the room and walked down the aisle.

The pair looked nervous and their hands were visibly shaking as they carried what looked like a bundle of lecture notes.

Some of the more observant PoWs noticed that there was something strange about their SS uniforms. On the men’s left sleeves had been sewn Union Flag shields. There were three lions from the Royal Standard on their right collar tabs and the words ‘British Free Corps’ had been stitched on their left cuffs.

‘The menace of Jewish Communism’

The two men mounted the stage and one of them started to speak in perfect English. The PoWs listened in dumbstruck silence as it became clear that they were both British and that they were exhorting them to join the German cause.

The younger of the two men repeated the words from the flimsy recruiting leaflet in his hand and said: ‘In order to fight the menace of Jewish Communism, we ask you to join the British Free Corps and take up arms with Germany in our fight against the common enemy .. .’

His words were soon drowned out by jeers and catcalls. Before long, the guards decided to escort the two British SS men out of the theatre as they tried to shield them from punches and the odd projectile.

The prisoners were stunned by the whole episode. Many were tempted to tear up the leaflets but others advised against it, suggesting that with the shortage of lavatory paper in the camp they could be put to better use.

It was the spring of 1944, and the Germans were so desperate to find soldiers to fight on the Eastern Front that they had launched a campaign to recruit from the ranks of Allied PoWs.

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