Exercise Tiger – a summary

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.)

Exercise TigerExercise Tiger

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

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D-Day: History in an Hour

Untitled-1Midnight, Tuesday 6 June 1944: the beginning of D-Day, the operation to invade Nazi-occupied Western Europe and initiate the final phase of World War II. A vast undertaking, it involved 12,000 aircraft and an amphibious assault of almost 7,000 vessels. 160,000 troops would cross the English Channel during Operation Overlord, paving the way for more than three million allied troops to enter France by the end of August 1944.

Forces from the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, the Free French and Poland all heavily participated, alongside contingents from Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, and Norway, They capitalised on the element of surprise achieved due to bad weather and the success of Operation Bodyguard – a feat of massive deception to convince Hitler that the landings would hit Pas-de-Calais. In just over a year, the war would be won. ‘D-Day: History in an Hour’ by History In An Hour’s founder, Rupert Colley, is the story of how the largest military operation in history had been planned, practised and executed.

This, in an hour, is D-Day…

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Also available as an audio download.


The Dieppe Raid
The Atlantic Wall
The Eve of Invasion
6 June: D-Day
Five Beaches
The Battle of Normandy
What might have been…

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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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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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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Rudolf Höss – a Summary

Rudolf Höss was born to Catholic parents in Baden-Baden on 25 November 1900. His early life mirrored that of many of his generation who went on to adopt radical National Socialist views: he saw action in World War One and identified the Jewish community as having betrayed the Fatherland when Germany did not emerge victorious from the conflict. He joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and began working in the concentration camp system in late 1934; going on to play a key role in the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ in the 1940s.

Dachau and Sachsenhausen

The first concentration camp in the Third Reich was established in 1933 to imprison people who were politically opposed to the new Nazi regime. Among the prisoners of Dachau were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, and homosexuals, who were deemed subversive and a threat to a high national birth rate. The concentration camp system was administered by the Schutzstaffel (SS), an elite police corps led by Heinrich Himmler.

HossRudolf Höss, having recently joined the SS at Himmler’s invitation, began work as a guard at Dachau in November 1934. He also assumed an administration role and in 1936 became a lieutenant at the Sachsenhausen camp. At both Dachau and Sachsenhausen he was further moulded into the SS mind-set that orders were to be obeyed without question and that no compassion should be felt towards camp inmates, who were subjected to both physical and mental brutality on a daily basis.

In early 1940, Höss was awarded the promotion that would later make him infamous. With his wife Hedwig and their young family (they eventually had five children) he relocated to Poland to take charge of a new camp called Auschwitz.

Commandant of Auschwitz

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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.