Reinhard Heydrich – a summary

On 4 June 1942, the Nazi wartime leader of occupied Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, died. He had been the victim of an assassination attempt a week earlier. Aged 38, the ‘Butcher of Prague’ was dead.

Six months earlier, on 28 December 1941, two Free Czech agents, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík, trained by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (the SOE), had parachuted into Czechoslovakia. Their objective, almost certain to end in their deaths, was to assassinate the ‘Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, to give Reinhard Heydrich his full title.

Assassination attempt

HeydrichOn the 27 May 1942, the agents, on learning of Heydrich’s movements that day, went into action. As the car taking Heydrich to a meeting slowed to navigate a hairpin bend, the two men attacked. Heydrich, as was his routine, was without an armed escort. Gabčík tried to shoot Heydrich but his submachine gun jammed at the fatal moment. Instead of ordering his chauffeur to drive off, Heydrich chose to fight. He attempted to fire back but a small bomb, thrown by Kubis, exploded, injuring him. Heydrich and his driver gave chase on foot, but the two agents escaped before Heydrich, bleeding profusely, collapsed from his injuries. He was rushed to hospital. Surgeons operated and initially it seemed the stricken Nazi was recovering. On 2 June, a week after the attack, he received a visit from his superior and mentor, Heinrich Himmler. Following Himmler’s visit, Heydrich slipped into a coma and died on 4 June. He was given a sumptuous funeral in Prague followed by a second ceremony in Berlin.

Meanwhile, Heydrich’s assassins, Kubis and Gabčík, hid in the crypt of a Prague church. Three-weeks later they were betrayed and the church was surrounded by 800 members of the SS. The men held out for as long as possible before turning their guns on themselves.

Young Heydrich

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The Battle of the Atlantic – a brief summary

The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in World War Two, is to be commemorated in a series of events today, 8 May 2013.

According to BBC News, ‘three Royal Navy warships will arrive in London before a special evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral at 17:00 BST. The events mark the seventieth anniversary of the climax of the battle, May 1943, when Germany’s submarine fleet suffered heavy losses in the Atlantic. The milestone is also being marked in Londonderry and Liverpool.’

So what exactly was the Battle of the Atlantic? History In An Hour provides a brief summary.

The war at sea began immediately in September 1939 with the Germans sinking merchant ships in the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic. On 13 December 1939, the Battle of River Plate in the South Atlantic took place. The German battleship Graf Spee attacked a squadron of British ships off the coast of Uruguay but in doing so was damaged herself. Hitler ordered her captain, Hans Langsdorff, to scuttle the ship rather than let her fall into enemy hands. Langsdorff followed his orders and the Graf Spee was sunk (pictured). A week later, Langsdorff, draped in the German flag, shot himself.

The U-boat peril

In his memoirs, Winston Churchill later confessed: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” Britain depended heavily on imports – from iron ore and fuel to almost 70 per cent of all her food. Convoys of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic were escorted by the Royal Navy and, as far as it could reach, the RAF. But there was only so far the planes could travel, leaving a ‘mid-Atlantic gap” where the convoys were particularly vulnerable to German submarines, or U-boats, which hunted in groups or ‘wolf packs’.

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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – a summary

On 19 April 1943, the Jews interned in the Warsaw Ghetto revolted against their Nazi oppressors. They fought determinedly with limited resources for almost a month, before their resistance was finally quelled and the vast majority were deported to extermination camps. Seventy years on, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remains symbolic of collective Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

Forced Resettlement

Warsaw Ghetto UprisingThe internment of Polish Jews in ghettos began in October 1939, mere weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland and consequent outbreak of World War Two. Hitler’s regime had been implementing anti-Semitic policies in Germany since its rise to power in early 1933 and as the Third Reich expanded, discriminatory measures were steadily instigated against Jews living in the other areas of Europe that came under Nazi rule.

Poland was home to around two million Jews in 1939 and following the Nazi invasion, large parts of the country were immediately incorporated into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles from these areas were then forcibly moved from their homes so that Lebensraum (living space) would become available for ethnic Germans.

The initial destination of these displaced people was the Generalgouvernement, an area under civil administration situated between the Soviet and Nazi occupied zones, which included the Polish capital city of Warsaw. Jews were subsequently crowded into designated areas of towns and cities where they were segregated from non-Jewish society and could be contained and controlled: ghettos.

Inhumane Conditions

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Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp – a summary

Whilst in the Bergen-Hohne area of Germany, writes Stella Milner, a friend took me to a village called Belsen.  I knew nothing of the lovely rustic area other than how beautiful is was. The long wooden hut on the roadside seemed unaccountably odd in the tranquil suburb; and the inside was equally intriguing but very disturbing.  Indeed, the photographs were so grisly and distressing it was a relief to get outside, but the morbid atmosphere was worse.  The bright sunshine had disappeared, leaving an ominous grey sky, with not a single cloud, nor the smallest breeze; no wildlife, not even a blade of grass between the huge concrete blocks; and there was not a sound, until the repetitive firing in the distance echoed amongst the hushed graveyard.  Looking at the massive concrete block to my left, I remembered one of the photographs; on the edge of what seemed a gigantic hole was an enormous heap of human bones; bones that were all that was left of many human beings.  In the background of the picture there was an army dump-truck waiting to shove them into the dark soil.  Even in death they were without respect. It was the place where, sometime in early March 1945, Anne Frank died.

That brief subjoin into the past moved me far more than anything I had seen or heard before.  I felt sad and yet angry as I left, but wanted to know more.

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp1933-1939


The first German camp was Dachau which became their prototype and the model for all that followed during the Second World War.  The Dachau camp was built on the sight of an abandoned munitions factory about 16 kilometres north-west of Munich and in the southern state of Bavaria.  It was opened on 22 March 1933 and was a concentration camp for Germany’s own nationals; mainly political and those who opposed the Nazi regime.

Ironically, between 1945 and 1948 the Dachau camp contained SS officers; later, German people who had been expelled from Czechoslovakia and had nowhere to go; and lastly, it became a base for the Americans. It closed in 1960.  During its first twelve years, Dachau’s intake was around 206,200 and of those people about 31,950 prisoners died.


It is thought that the Germans established about 15,000 camps and sub-camps, which were split into three uses; concentration, death and labour camps; of which, at least 600 camps were in Germany.  But that is just an estimate and it is doubtful that an exact number will ever be reached.  It is also thought that there were at least two sub-camps in the area of Belsen, but they were probably destroyed in 1945 along with the complete base camp.


Between 1935 and 1937 the Wehrmacht built an expansive military training complex between Bergen and Belsen.  It was the largest exercise complex in Germany and was built as part of the Reich’s grand re-armament plans. They obviously chose the area because of its sparse population and varying landscapes, which were ideal for battle-size exercises with their armoured vehicles.  It not only meant the relocation of around 3,635 residents but also the destruction of most of their twenty-five villages.


The Belsen sector consisted of over a hundred barrack blocks, fifty stables, forty massive garage blocks, a hospital, storage depots and a factory for making targets for the firing ranges, and, in the southern area, an ammunition dump.  The construction workers were housed in huts in Fallingbostel- Oerbka.  The two villages were neighbours that made up the West camp. By 4 May 1936 some units were in residence and in 1938 the entire complex was in use.  However, when the training complex was finished the huts were redundant until just after Germans entered Poland in September 1939.

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The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: review

One can’t help but gasp with admiration at the life and exploits of Christine Granville, one of Britain’s bravest wartime heroines. On reading Clare Mulley’s entertaining biography, The Spy Who Loved, we are introduced to a woman who lived life on the edge and who found ordinary, routine existence a bore. Mulley writes with almost a venerable regard for her subject and rightly so, for one would expect the life of Christine Granville to exist only within the pages of fiction. Indeed, she may well have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character, Vesper Lynd, from his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

The Spy Who LovedBorn Krystyna Skarbek in Poland, 1908, to a rakish father, a count who taught her how to ride a horse like a man, and a wealthy, Jewish mother, Christine Granville, the name she later adopted, enjoyed an aristocratic, carefree childhood, whose tomboy antics earned the respect of her loving father. Granville disdained authority and convention from an early age, pushing boundaries wherever she went. As a convent schoolgirl, she was expelled for setting fire to the priest’s cassock. (He was wearing it at the time).

Absolutely fearless

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Granville and her second husband travelled to London where she offered her services to British intelligence. She was sent to Hungary and from there, skied into German-occupied Poland. And from here, Granville’s life of adventure, incredible courage and resilience begins. ‘She is,’ wrote one secret service report, ‘absolutely fearless’ and, from another report, ‘ready to risk her life at any moment for what she believed in’. What Granville believed in, was to play an active role in undermining Nazi control of her beloved homeland.

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The Tizard Mission and the Development of Radar

Although aircraft were used to good effect in the First World War, their function was largely limited to roles of reconnaissance and dog-fighting.  The use of aerial bombing was extremely limited.  But after the war, Britain saw the potential of the bomber, and recognized itself to be an unfortunately ideal target; an aerial attack seemed tailor-made to an island nation with densely packed population and industry.

The devastating potential of aerial bombing became all the more clear in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War.  German forces, in support of Franco’s attempt to overthrow Spain’s new Republican government, staged a large-scale air attack on the town of Guernica.  Hundreds were killed, and the town nearly leveled, by waves of German bomber aircraft.  The era of air warfare had begun.  Long before the Guernica devastation, and convinced that “the bomber will always get through,” Britain had realized by the early 1930s that its existing aerial defenses, consisting of air patrols and ground-based visual observers, would provide little if any warning of an attack from Germany.  A change was needed.

Radar Development Programs, and Chain Home

Throughout the 1930s, there were numerous national research programs concentrating on the development of systems employing the reflection of radio waves to detect distant objects, such as ships and aircraft.  Such systems are what we now know as radar (the term itself was first coined around 1940), but was initially termed RDF, for Radio Direction Finding.  In addition to Britain, other nations, including the United States, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Italy, Russia, and Japan, were active in this field of research, with varying levels of success. Continue reading

Nancy Wake – Hero of World War Two

In her book Women Heroes of World War II, author Kathryn Atwood looks at the lives and courageous feats of twenty-six women during the Second World War. Here, Kathryn pays special tribute to Nancy Wake, a leading figure in the French Resistance.

Women Heroes of WWIIAll of the women in my book had impressive reserves of moral courage and most had specific epiphanies in which they decided to fight the Germans. So what differentiates Nancy Wake from the others? I believe it was Nancy’s dramatic and fascinating masculine/feminine duality, something that made this highly decorated Second World War hero perfect for the one job in which she would ultimately come to feel the most pride: her incredible 500 km, 72-hour bike ride that kept her enormous band of French fighters connected with London at a crucial moment in their battle against the Germans

Moment of epiphany

Many of the women featured in my book, Women Heroes of World War II, had epiphanies during which they decided to take their stand against the Nazis. For one, it was when she saw her father weeping at the onset of Belgium’s second German occupation. For another, it was the sight of women and children being chased down and shot in a Jewish ghetto.

Nancy Wake’s moment came in 1934 during a trip to Vienna where she and her fellow journalists were seeking the truth behind the Nazi-induced horror stories pouring out of Austria and Germany. There in Vienna’s very public main square, she saw a gang of Hitler’s Brown Shirts whipping Jewish men who were chained to enormous moving wheels. She documented her reaction to this scene in her memoir: “I resolved there and then that if I ever had the chance I would do anything, however big or small, stupid or dangerous, to try and make things more difficult for their rotten party. When war came to France, followed by the occupation, I found it quite natural to take the stand I did.”

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The Bombing of Dresden

From about 10 pm on the night of 13 February 1945 until noon the following day, the East German city of Dresden was the subject of one the most intense bombing raids of the Second World War. Several German cities were targeted but it is the bombing of Dresden, and its utter destruction, that came to symbolise the work of the RAF’s Bomber Command and its commander, Sir Arthur Harris.

Florence of the Elbe

DresdenGermany’s seventh largest city, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, Dresden was known as the ‘Florence of the Elbe’, such was its architectural splendour, its large collections of art and quaint timbered buildings. In February 1945, the city’s population had temporarily been inflated by a huge influx of German refugees, perhaps up to 350,000, fleeing the Soviet advance sixty miles away to the east.

With only minimal anti-aircraft guns, few German troops, and limited war-related industry, Dresden was still deemed a legitimate target – for Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’s intention was not so much military but ‘moral bombing’, to demoralise the civilian population and thereby shorten the war (despite evidence during the Blitz that instead of demoralising civilians, bombing only hardened resolve). The strategic objective of bombing Dresden and other cities in eastern Germany was, as agreed at the Anglo-American Yalta Conference, to help alleviate the pressures on Soviet forces advancing into Germany on the Eastern Front.

The Allied commanders studied aerial photographs of German cities and specifically targeted areas of heavy residential populations. His aim, said Harris, was to make the ‘rubble bounce’ not just in Dresden but in every German city.

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Anne Frank’s Diary Released As An App

The Diary of a Young Girl ranks amongst the most widely-read books in the world. Written by the teenage Anne Frank between 1942 and 1944 and published posthumously, it is regarded as one of the most compelling and remarkable documents to emerge from the Holocaust era. 2012 marked the 65th anniversary of the diary’s publication and this weekend the first digital app of Anne’s work has been released, coinciding with Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January.

Anne FrankAnne was born into a liberal German-Jewish family in 1929. The Franks emigrated to Amsterdam following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, to escape the intolerance directed at Jews under the new Nazi regime. When the Netherlands was occupied during World War Two, anti-Semitic persecution intensified and in 1942 the Frank family went into hiding. Along with four other German Jews, the Franks remained hidden in an annexe above Otto Frank’s business premises for twenty-five months, until on 4 August 1944 they were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.

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900 Days: the Myth and Reality of the Leningrad Blockade

Four years in the making, Jessica Gorter’s film, 900 Days: the Myth and Reality of the Leningrad Blockade, considers how the Siege of Leningrad was acknowledged in the Soviet Union during the post-war years and how, seventy years on, it’s remembered by those who lived through it.

Over twenty-nine months, between 1941 and 1944, German forces encircled the city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and subjected it to a devastating siege. The number of deaths in Leningrad during the war exceeds those who died from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and constitutes the largest death toll ever recorded in a single city.

Hero City

For almost nine hundred days, the city resisted the Germans pounding at its gates. Its survival contributed to the defeat of Nazism. But the price was heavy – over one million died in Leningrad from German bombs and artillery, or from disease, the cold or starvation.

In its suffering Leningrad became a source of symbolic national pride, of good conquering evil. The story of the siege is one of heroic resistance and stoical survival but it also one of unimaginable suffering and extreme deprivation.

In the immediate aftermath of the siege, Leningrad, awarded the Order of Lenin, was held up as the pinnacle of Soviet endurance, spirit and heroic suffering. It was given the accolade, ‘Hero City’, which not even Moscow had achieved. The one million that died, did so nobly – ‘on the altar of the Motherland’. Those who had survived were awarded the Defence of Leningrad Medal.

Yes, the city had suffered but that it survived was a testament to the political strength of its people and their belief in Communism which had triumphed over Hitler’s fascist hoards. At least that’s the version perpetuated by Joseph Stalin. Leningrad’s torment became a banner for propaganda.

But there is nothing noble about death in such circumstances, nothing ideological about the city’s survival. The real stories that emerged from the siege had to be repressed. No one dared write or mention aloud the darkest aspects of the siege. Any mention of cannibalism was taboo. Diaries too explicit in the truth were confiscated, their authors labelled enemies of the people. A museum dedicated to the siege, opened in 1946, was deemed too bleak in its honest portrayal of what happened and was closed within three years, its director arrested. Stalin required suffering on a heroic scale, not the sordid, pitying suffering endured by so many for so long.

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