Wunderwaffe – Hitler’s Super Weapons of the Future

Although for a time the Nazi war machine seemed virtually unstoppable, by 1942 the future of the “thousand-year Reich” was suddenly in doubt. With the bulk of the Wehrmacht bogged down in Russia and the full might of America finally being brought to bear against the Axis, Germany’s prospects for victory (or even just survival) seemed bleak indeed. Outnumbered, surrounded and now largely on the defensive, military planners in Berlin increasingly believed that Germany’s best and maybe only hope lay in the development of super-weapons or wunderwaffe.

While a number of game changing breakthroughs like the V-1 rocket, the Me-262 fighter jet and Schweer Gustav gun had surprised and even amazed the Allies, these technological marvels were only the beginning of what the Nazi regime was planning to unleash. Right up to the very end of the war in Europe, German engineers were racing against the clock to field next generation of fighting ships, warplanes, and missiles — technology that Hitler hoped would not only stave off defeat but even guarantee an Axis triumph. While most of these proposed war machines never left the drawing board, they still manage to fascinate, even 70 years later.

Ballistic Missile Subs

Type 21

The German Type XXI U-boat was certainly ahead of its time. The Nazis hoped to convert the snorkelling submarine into a ballistic missile boat.

Long before the Second World War began, Adolf Hitler dreamed about striking at the United States. But by 1944, even as Nazi missiles were raining down on London, the Fuhrer’s rocket scientists had yet to devise a weapon that could reach North America. Instead, they looked for ways to transport warheads across the Atlantic and launch them from American waters. With the Allies largely in control of the ocean surface, this task would fall to Germany’s U-boats.

In 1943, scientists at the Peenemunde research centre had developed submarine technology that could fire V-2 missiles from the sea. The plan, codenamed Prufstand XII, involved special watertight silos, each containing one of the infamous short-ranged ballistic missiles. Type XXI subs, which could cruise submerged for vast distances, would tow the canisters undetected across the ocean. Once in position off the coast of New York, Boston or Washington, the U-boats would release their tethered silos. The pods would float to the surface, turn upright and automatically launch the missile. Fortunately, the plan for sea-launched V-2s was never realized largely because the engineers at Peenemunde were too busy working on other projects. Despite this, three of the towed missile containers were ordered and one was even delivered in late 1944. Allied intelligence was aware of the weapons and prepared to meet this new threat. The U.S. Navy ordered four escort carrier groups to scour the western Atlantic for snorkeling subs that might be towing missile pods.

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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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Code Name Pauline – a review

Born in Paris to English parents, Pearl Witherington Cornioley was an extraordinary SOE agent who, at one point during World War Two, had over 3,000 fighters under her command. In 1995, her memoirs were published in France. Now, eighteen years later, as Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, they are finally available in English, edited by American author Kathryn Atwood, and published by Chicago Review Press. Atwood first introduced us to Pearl in 2011 in her excellent Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. And here we get Pearl’s story from the woman herself. And it’s quite a story.

Code Name PaulinePearl’s father was a drifter and an alcoholic, rarely at home. Although she states she was “never unhappy at home with Mummy”, it was, nonetheless, a difficult childhood, having to bear her parents’ arguing, often rummaging for food and fighting off her father’s debt collectors. As the eldest of four girls and with an English mother who found it hard coping with life in Paris, Pearl was imbued from an early age with a sense of responsibility; a responsibility that deprived her of a proper childhood. As soon as she was old enough, and following her father’s death, Pearl went out to work to earn money, not for herself, but her mother and her sisters.

The Fall of France

Pearl met her future husband, Henri Cornioley, the son of prosperous parents, in 1933. But with war, six years later, came separation. Drafted into the army, Henri was not to see his sweetheart for over three years. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Pearl and her family, as British citizens, were still technically enemies of Nazi Germany and therefore had to flee. Following a circuitous journey lasting some seven months, they finally arrived in London in July 1941.

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Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent

And why Americans should read it…

Code Name Pauline is the autobiography of Pearl Witherington, a woman who gained fame while working for the French section of the Special Operations Executive, a British Second World War organization that organized and supported European Resistance networks. The English translation of Pearl’s originally French memoir is now officially available in English.

Code Name PaulineThat’s quite a variety of geographics but it doesn’t stop there: the tale of how this memoir landed in the hands of a Chicagoan has been told elsewhere (in the memoir’s editor’s preface, to be precise) but as that Chicagoan I’d like to connect the dots for my fellow Americans, giving them a compelling reason as to why they should read Code Name Pauline.

The reason has everything to do with our Greatest Generation. We Americans are rightly proud of them, pausing in awed silence every June 6th to honor the memory of “our boys” who courageously stormed the beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord, eventually defeating Nazi Germany. It’s an iconic and beloved American image but it’s not nearly the entire picture; there were many other factors that made the success of the landings possible. One of them began three years earlier and another the moment the timing of the landings became known.

Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa, the code name for German invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, when Hitler myopically opened an entirely new front. By the time the Americans and their allies landed at Normandy three years later, the Russian Front had seriously depleted the German ranks.

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D-Day: a summary

D-Day, 6 June 1944, marked the start of Operation Overlord, the long awaited Allied offensive to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe.

The writing of history, we are all too frequently reminded, is the prerogative of the victors.  That may or may not be the case but what I suspect is much closer to the truth, writes Alex Gerlis, is that there is a tendency to oversimplify the outcome of historical events and to view them through that one perspective alone.  All too often history is presented in headline terms, ignoring the subtle nuances that invariably shape it.  It is rather like reporting a football match solely in terms of the final result, disregarding what happened during the game.

D-DayOperation Overlord is a good example of this.  The facts and the eventual outcome of the campaign are impressive and not in doubt:  156,000 Allied troops landed on D-Day, along five beaches on a fifty mile stretch of Normandy coastline and in airborne operations.   By the time all the beaches had been secured on 11 June, more than 325,000 Allied troops had landed on them.  The Battle of Normandy would last until late August: Paris was liberated on 25 August and the way was then open for the Allies to move into the Low Countries and from there into Germany itself.  At the same time, the Red Army was advancing from the east.  There was a clear continuum from Normandy to the German surrender almost exactly eleven months later.

A closely fought battle

But behind this reality of D-Day lies a complex tale. In fact, the Battle of Normandy was a much more closely fought battle and its outcome far from certain.

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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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