The misfits of D-Day and World War II - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The misfits of D-Day and World War II

If you are a regular reader of Coffee or Die Magazine (you are here, after all), then you have likely read countless stories from military history about the misfits who served during World War II. Some of these may be familiar, while others are new additions to your store of knowledge. We’ve covered soldiers who carried peculiar weapons into battle, such as a longbow or an umbrella, and special operations and guerrilla warfare units that thrived with a diverse cast of characters.

Here’s a roundup of 10 misfits of D-Day and World War II who inspired many to follow them into hell and back.

Oldest Soldier on D-Day

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was 56 years old when he stormed Utah Beach. Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was the oldest soldier to land as part of the first wave of the invasion force on D-Day. The 56-year-old veteran of World War I and Distinguished Service Cross recipient rallied his men armed with a pistol in one hand and his walking cane in the other to take Utah Beach. One month later, Roosevelt died after suffering a massive heart attack. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry and courage at Utah Beach on D-Day.

The Rice Paddy Navy

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
A C-46 employed by the SACO waits for a bomb crater on the runway to be repaired by Chinese soldiers. Photo by W. Elsworth Smith, courtesy of computersmiths.com.

The Rice Paddy Navy was a scrappy group of river pirates, peasants, coast watchers, and saboteurs who were provided weapons and training by a Chinese secret service general and a team of hand-picked US Navy sailors and Marines. The Rice Paddy Navy, better known as the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO) — pronounced “socko” — served mainly as a paramilitary unit. 

They collected intelligence and conducted espionage operations but also launched ambushes, assassinations, and sabotage on key officers and infrastructure. In just three years — between 1942 and 1945 — they rescued 76 aviators shot down behind enemy lines, built a guerrilla army of nearly 97,000 fighters, and had 18 camps organized in China, Burma, Indochina, and parts of India.

Fly-Fishing Commando

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Ernest Hemingway with sons Patrick, Jack “Bumby,” and Gregory “Gigi” at Club de Cazadores del Cerro, Cuba. Photo courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Jack Hemingway, the eldest son of novelist Ernest Hemingway, famously completed his first combat jump with the OSS on a Jedburgh mission over France while towing along his fly-fishing rod. He even almost got caught by a German patrol midstream carrying his rod, reel, and a box of flies. But the Germans just made jokes about the silly fisherman, not realizing he was an American commando caught in the act. 

Prior to Hemingway’s service in Europe, he got into an altercation in a café in Algiers. He and a few other OSS commandos were there for a nightcap when a thief snatched his jump boots and ran down an alley. As the commandos gave chase, the thief linked up with friends around the corner who were wielding knives. The knives were no match for the commandos though — despite their heavy drinking, all were unarmed combat instructors for the OSS, and they easily disarmed the perpetrators without suffering a scratch.

The Safecracker

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Composite by Kenna Milaski/Coffee or Die Magazine.

In 1951, a newspaper reported that a detective from Scotland Yard had instantly pointed the finger at “Gentle Johnny” Ramensky, one of the most well-known safecrackers in the criminal underworld. Ramensky was a repeat offender, in and out of jail, yet he had no equals. In World War II, criminal types weren’t overlooked by special operations units. Crooks were even sought after because of their advanced knowledge in demolitions, skill with hand-to-hand combat, and situational awareness. Ramensky in particular was recruited for lock-picking and safecracking and joined Ian Fleming’s crackshot commando unit known as 30 Assault Unit (30AU). 

For the 30 AU, he conducted sabotage missions against German railroads and bridges carrying Nazi supplies. He also snuck into the North African headquarters of Erwin Rommel and stole top-secret materials. He targeted Hermann Göring’s luxurious Carinhall estate in the Schorfheide and was dropped by parachute into Rome to investigate Germany’s plans for withdrawing from Italy. In one afternoon, he blew open as many as 10 to 14 safes. “How did you do it?” his officers would ask, and he’d reply, “That, gentlemen, is my secret.”

The Ghost Army

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Screenshot from YouTube.

The art of deception is a strategy that must be perfected by military strategists in order to trick the enemy into the belief of authenticity. In the summer of 1944, the US Army had a specialized unit known as the “Ghost Army,” or 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, armed to the teeth with inflatable tanks, phony vehicles, and phantom divisions. The Ghost Army staged more than 20 deception operations across France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg.  

“Its complement was more theatrical than military,” writes the Ghost Army Legacy Project. “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.”

The Gas Pipe Gang

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Capt. Nieves Fernandez shows an American soldier how she used her long knife to silently kill Japanese soldiers during occupation, 1944. Photo courtesy of rarehistoricalphotos.com.

Capt. Nieves Fernandez was a schoolteacher before World War II. She had witnessed violence at the hands of the Japanese against the Filipino populace in Visayas, a group of islands in the Philippines. One day she’d had enough and recruited men in her community, known as Waray guerrillas to American forces in the area, to join her resistance force. They were sometimes called the “Gas Pipe Gang” for their use of improvised weapons such as gas pipes loaded with a combination of gunpowder and nails that acted as makeshift shotguns. 

The guerrilla commander, born circa 1906, led a loyal following of 110 resistance fighters for two and a half years killing as many as 200 Japanese soldiers. She ran through the port city with a bolo knife and set up ambushes in the forest while barefoot. The Gas Pipe Gang violently defied their Japanese occupiers, since it was the only way to protect themselves. 

Motley Crew of Fishermen

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
The Shetland Bus were fishermen to some, and giants to others. Screenshot courtesy of YouTube.

The Shetland Bus was an operation led by a motley crew of volunteer Norwegian fishermen that received support from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). They used the disguise of hiding in plain sight to deliver British commandos and saboteurs into Norway to help Norwegian commandos in their irregular warfare campaigns against the Germans. The Shetland Bus also acted as a highway for Norwegians to escape from Nazi oppression.

Skipper Lief Larsen was the most notorious fisherman of the operation, journeying through the harsh North Sea on 52 trips, sometimes for weeks at a time. By the war’s end, the Shetland Bus had transported 400 tons of weaponry and carried out hundreds of missions to the benefit of those in Norway who would have been cut off from the rest of the world without them.

Bagpiper, Swordsman, Archer

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Composite by Kenna Milaski/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“Mad Jack” Churchill, or “Fighting Jack,” was the last British officer to kill an enemy combatant in war with a longbow. This World War II misfit also dressed in a kilt and played the bagpipes during coastal raids to inspire his troops from No. 2 Commando. During Operation Archery, sometimes called the Måløy Raid, he played “March of the Cameron Men” while they were assaulting German positions on the island of Vågsøy, Norway. In Salerno and Sicily, during the Italian amphibious landings, Churchill famously captured 42 German soldiers and an 81 mm mortar team armed with only his sword.

“In my opinion, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed,” he reasoned. After a botched nighttime raid in Yugoslavia, Churchill was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he and a Royal Air Force officer tunneled to freedom. At least that’s what they intended, because they were captured and transferred to a more secure prison camp. Churchill escaped again and was discovered eight days later by an American reconnaissance unit. 

La Dame Qui Boite: “The Lady Who Limps”

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

The CIA’s predecessor during World War II was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and one of its most heralded officers to serve in the outfit was a woman known to them as Virginia Hall and to the French Resistance as La Dame Qui Boite, or “The Lady Who Limps.” Hall served more than 20 years with the OSS, the British SOE, and the CIA, gaining notoriety for her actions as well as for her appearance during the war. She named her wooden prosthetic leg “Cuthbert” and famously received a response from an unsuspecting staff officer that added to her legend. From the snow-covered Pyrenees mountain range she sent a message to London: “Cuthbert is giving me trouble, but I can cope.” An unknown staff officer replied, “If Cuthbert is giving you trouble, have him eliminated.”

Hall was the first woman in SOE to establish resistance networks out of Vichy, France, and went on daring undercover missions for the OSS, often adopting disguises and aliases to remain hidden from the Germans who called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” She transmitted coded messages as a wireless operator detailing German troop movements and also coordinated airdrops for the Maquis guerrillas. 

The Limping Lady had earned the respect of the most seasoned paramilitary officers. Hall was a “gung-ho lady left over from the OSS days overseas,” CIA official Angus Thuermer later commented. “Young women in sweater sets and pearls listened raptly to Virginia Hall gas with muscular paramilitary officers who would stop by her desk to tell war stories.” Hall was the only civilian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross medal during the war.

The Umbrella-Wielder

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Composite by Kenna Milaski/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Maj. Allison Digby Tatham-Warter was a British officer who worked as a safari guide shooting tigers and hunting wild boars with a spear in India. During World War II, Tatham-Warter joined the Parachute Regiment, famously known as the “Paras,” and trained his men to rely not on the radio but on a musical instrument, the bugle horn, for communications. The unorthodox officer had difficulty remembering passwords, and thus he carried an umbrella to mark himself as friendly.

“It would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool carrying the umbrella could only be an Englishman,” he later said.

His battlefield heroics could be remade into a satirical comedy film, yet they were completely real. Near the German-held Arnhem Bridge, the battalion’s chaplain became pinned down by enemy fire. Tatham-Warter ran to his aid and quipped, “Don’t worry, I’ve got an umbrella!” His craziest endeavor involved him charging a row of panzers and armored cars and thrusting the point of his brolly into the eye of an operator of an armored car to incapacitate him. When the Germans surrounded his battalion, he was captured, yet Tatham-Warter escaped, stole a bicycle in broad daylight, and rode through the streets until he linked up with Dutch resistance forces to reach safety.

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Russia almost blew the United States away with a nuclear strike in 1995 after mistakenly thinking it was under attack. If it weren’t for Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin, America as we know it wouldn’t exist. Under the “launch-on-warning” policy used by both nations, Russia had 30 minutes to decide to nuke us but Yeltsin only had five.


Here’s how this monumental mistake almost took place:

NOW: The US nuclear launch code during the Cold War was weaker than your granny’s AOL password

OR: Here’s the entire Cold War by the numbers

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

There’s no truer way to describe it: Life in the trenches of WWI was absolute hell. If an enemy bullet, artillery shell, or gas canister didn’t kill you, the cesspool of diseases that formed in the puddles at the bottom of the trenches surely would. To make matters worse, the damp, dingy, and dirty environment made for the perfect breeding ground for rats that would carry and spread deadly diseases.

Placing and maintaining rat traps was impractical in such an austere environment, so there was really only one way to deal with the infestation. This particular deterrent also provided a huge boost to morale in an otherwise bleak battlefield. We’re talking, of course, about trench cats.


The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Things are just slightly better when you have a kitty.
(Imperial War Museum)

Throughout the trench systems that ran along the Western Front of WWI, there were an estimated 500,000 cats. Primarily, they were there to cull the rodent population, but as you can imagine, many troops would find comfort in caring for the kitties.

The cats also served at mascots for many of the units fighting in the trenches. Troops would share parts of their rations with the cats who, in turn, would stick around for the food and attention. The cats would mostly crowd around troops’ living quarters, giving them something to play with between conflicts.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
(National Archives)

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the cats, though. Many more troops loved and cared for the cats in between battles and made them part of their unit. Like this Army Air Corps kitty, who’s name was Spark Plug.

As heart-wrenching as it was, cats were also very susceptible to the near-odorless and near-invisible toxic gas used against the Allies. This means that cats would feel the effects of the gas attacks almost immediately. Like canaries in mine shafts, their reaction to the gas would alert nearby troops, who would then rush to put on their gear and get to safety. It’s unknown how many cats died due to chemical warfare, but their losses saved countless GI lives.

The cats were also able to freely cross no man’s land. During the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, many soldiers wished for peace and friendship between the troops of warring factions. So, they would tie messages around the collars of some of the free-roaming kitties and the message would get across to the enemy fortifications.

Unfortunately, not everyone thought such communication was to be taken lightly. One cat by the name of Felix was caught by French officers and put in front of a tribunal. This cat, trying to carry messages of peace and love in exchange for treats, was found guilty of treason and executed by firing squad.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Lt. Lekeux and Pitouchi would remain best friends long after the war.
(Belgian Historical Archives)​
 

The cats were known to be fiercely loyal to the troops with whom they served. One Belgian officer and scout, Lt. Lekeux of the 3rd Regiment of Artillery, came across a liter of kittens whose mother had perished before the young could open their eyes. Lekeux nursed the kittens back to health, but unfortunately only one survived — he named the cat Pitoutchi.

The cat followed the lieutenant everywhere he went and jumped on his shoulders whenever the trenches were too wet. One night, as Lt. Lekeux was scouting out the German position and drawing their location on a map, German troops almost spotted him. Alerted by some noise, the troops surrounded the artillery crater in which Lekeux took cover. He was trapped; the Germans were sure to shoot him if he fled or bayonet him if they found him in there.

Suddenly, Pitoutchi jumped from Lt. Lekeux’s shoulder and dashed out of cover. The Germans spotted the little kitten and opened fire, but his cat’s reflexes proved too quick. The Germans attributed the noise they heard to Pitoutchi and gave up searching.

This gave Lekeux the window he needed to mount an escape, with the maps and Pitouchi in hand.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How a single Viking’s berserker rage changed world history forever

1066 was a tough year for Harold Godwinson, also known as Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. This had a lot to do with the two approaching forces who were trying to end his reign way earlier than he expected. One of them would be famously successful, and the other would get ended themselves. All Harold knew in September 1066 was that 300 Viking ships were on their way to England, and his good-for-nothing brother was floating along with them.


The misfits of D-Day and World War II

Tostig and Harold fighting at the court of Edward the Confessor. It seems rude to poke them with a giant stick while they’re fighting.

Harold was ready for an invasion, just not a Viking invasion from the North. He was actually was waiting for William the Bastard, who was supposedly going to cross the English Channel. When the English King learned about his brother landing in England, Harold took his waiting Army north to meet him. The incoming Viking Army was already wreaking havoc on York and Northumbria and was waiting for the area to send more hostages to their camp at Stamford Bridge. That’s where Harold rode, arriving in less than four days.

This move totally caught the Norwegians by surprise. The Vikings had no idea there was even an army in the area. When Harold II arrived, they were systematically cut down by the advancing Englishmen; the rest had to flee across the bridge. When the time came for the Anglo-Saxons to pursue, the bridge became a choke point the English just couldn’t cross – because of one angry ax-wielding Viking who was cutting down Englishmen like it was his job.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II

Which it kind of was.

The Viking axeman held the English off for so long, the Vikings were able to form a shield wall on the other side of the river and prepare for whatever formation Harold was going to hurl at them. The sagas say he killed 40 people before being taken down and t was only when an English pikeman floated underneath the bridge and skewered the Viking like a Swedish meatball at Ikea that the standoff ended. The English eventually did cross the bridge and murder the Vikings to death. Harold allowed the rest of them to live as long as they pledged never to come back, making Stamford Bridge the historical end of the Viking Age.

It was also the beginning of the end for Harold. Three days later, the much-anticipated Norman Invasion of England finally arrived and the delay of Harold’s army at Stamford Bridge allowed the Normans to land. Three weeks after that, Harold was killed fighting at the Battle of Hastings. William the Bastard took over England and became William the Conqueror.

The Norman conquest changed everything in England, from the cultural landscape to the way they talked – it even led to the formation of the British Empire, and later, the United States.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time a Canadian invented an e-tool that doubled as a shield

There’s a long list of interesting technologies that almost made their way onto the front lines during the brutal days of World War I.


In trench warfare, as troops set into position to attempt a shot, they often became the enemy’s target. They needed some way to protect themselves.

To this end, Gen. Sir Sam Hughes, the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defense during the war, engineered a device that looked just like an infantryman’s shovel, but slightly modified — with a hole. This unique invention was intended to act as a shield for allied forces and was dubbed the “MacAdam shovel,” named after Hughes’ secretary, Ena MacAdam, who sparked the idea. The E-tool was made of durable metal and was standard-issue, making this shield a potential lifesaver across the service.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
A sniper demonstrates using the MacAdam shovel.

In 1914, thousands of MacAdam shovels were produced for the Canadian army. However, the invention came with a few drawbacks.

First, the new shovels were made using a new, bullet-deflecting steel, making it much heavier than previous E-tools. Additionally, it didn’t have a carrying handle — as it was supposed to stick in the ground — making it more cumbersome for troops.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
A drawing of MacAdam shovel from Hughes’ patent design request.

Secondly, the shield shovel was mass produced to deflect incoming enemy rounds — but failed to do just that. Small caliber rounds managed to drill right through.

Lastly, and most obviously, the E-tool was used for digging, which is hard to do with a hole in your shovel. After testing the shield, many military minds refused to accept the shovel as a multi-use tool.

Hughes and MacAdams’ brainchild was, ultimately, scrapped. Bummer.

Check out Simple History‘s video below for more details on this odd shield that couldn’t protect much.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Did you know Martha Washington was one of the few female plantation owners?

Long before she ever served as our country’s original First Lady — the OG American leading lady — she lived a prosperous and successful life. She wasn’t “just” a homemaker or took a backseat to the political process. She was actually a prolific landowner, who was in charge of multiple plantation operations. It’s a role she came by through generations, as she herself was born on her own parents’ plantation. 

In 1731, she was born as Martha Dandridge to John and Frances Dandridge. Her father was an immigrant from England (her mother was born in America), and made his living by farming in the Virginia Colony. Growing up on a plantation, she learned the business (if even indirectly) and trained for her eventual role as a land owner herself.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
By John Folwell, drawn by W. Oliver Stone after the original by John Wollaston, painted in 1757 ((National Park Service, Morristown National Historical Park collection. Public Domain)

At just 18, she married another Virginia plantation owner, Daniel Parke Custis, who was 20 years older than she. The pair met when Martha was 16 and dealt with family disapproval through their courtship until they were wed two years later. Custis also came from a large plantation family, and as the sole heir, took over his family’s large estate — one of the wealthiest in Virginia at the time. 

But in 1757, when Martha was a young woman of 26 years old, her husband Daniel passed away, leaving her the entirety of their estate. Custis did not have a will — he presumably died from a heart attack and was 37 years old — which meant she was automatically willed the land. One-third was hers for her lifetime, with the other two-thirds left to their four children once reaching adulthood. During this time, Martha successfully ran the plantation. She was in charge of more than 17,000 acres, investments, and liquid cash. Her biographer wrote that Martha “capably ran five plantations” and that she bargained with London merchants to earn more for her tobacco crops. With the assets, she was also in charge of some 300 slaves, whom her second husband, George Washington, granted their freedom upon her death. (We condemn the practice of slavery by the Washingtons and throughout the Mount Vernon estate.)

At the time, Martha was left as the wealthiest widow in Virginia, and one of the wealthiest people in the colony altogether. It was rare — but not unheard of — for women to have such roles. For two years she successfully ran five plantations as the head of household. 

She then married the future First President, George Washington in 1759.

However, once she married George Washington, he took control over her inheritance under the law of seisin jure uxoris, meaning the man has a right to his wife’s possessions. (This was the culture of the time, and in fact, women in Great Britain were not legally allowed to own property until the 1880s.) Washington then became the plantation owner of the former Custis estate.

Washington remained the land and slave owner until he passed in 1799. At this time, Martha again inherited the land, until it was willed back to her son. However, Washington added a provision to his will that his own 124 slaves would be freed upon Martha’s death. Martha feared for her own safety, citing several fires that were started at Mount Vernon. Martha ended up releasing the slaves on her own accord a year before her passing in 1802. 

Articles

This is how British Commandos pulled off ‘The Greatest Raid of All’

During World War II, there were many ingenious and courageous raids, but only one would come to be known as “The Greatest Raid of All” – the British raid on St. Nazaire.


Since the beginning of hostilities, the German Navy had wreaked havoc on shipping in the Atlantic. With the fall of France, the Nazis had ample facilities on the Atlantic to service their fleet, well away from areas patrolled by the Royal Navy. The British wanted to take this away and force them through the English Channel or the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) gap, which they heavily defended. To do this, they devised a daring raid that would put the port of St. Nazaire out of action.

The plan, codenamed Operation Chariot, was to assault the port with commandos supported by a converted destroyer, the HMS Campbeltown. The British planned to load the Campbeltown with explosives and then ram it into the dry docks where it would detonate. The commandos would also land and destroy the port while up-gunned motor launches searched for targets of opportunity.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II

The raiding force consisted of 265 commandos (primarily from No.2 Commando) along with 346 Royal Navy sailors split between twelve motor launches and four torpedo boats.

The raiders set out from England on the afternoon of March 26, 1942, and arrived at the target just after midnight on March 28. At that point, the Campbeltown raised a German naval ensign to deceive German shore batteries. However, a planned bombing by the Royal Air Force put the harbor on high alert, and just eight minutes from their objective they were illuminated by spotlights.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
British Commandos, 1942

A gun battle between the approaching ships and the Germans ensued. At one mile out, the British raised their own naval ensign, increased speed, and drove through the murderous German fire. The helmsman of the Campbeltown was killed, his replacement wounded, and the whole crew blinded by searchlights. At 1:34 a.m., the destroyer found the Normandie dry dock gates, hitting with such force as to drive the destroyer 33 feet onto the gates.

As the commandos disembarked, the Germans rained small arms fire on the raiders. Despite suffering numerous casualties, they were able to complete their objectives, destroying harbor facilities and machinery.

The commandos on the motor launches were not so lucky. As the boats attempted to make their way to shore, most of them were put out of action by the German guns. Many sank without landing their units. All but four of 16 sank.

The motor launches were the means of egress from the port for the commandos already ashore. The image of many of them burning in the estuary was a disheartening sight.

Lt. Col. Newman, leading the Commandos on shore, and Commander Ryder of the Royal Navy realized evacuation by sea was no longer an option. Ryder signaled the remaining boats to leave the harbor and make for the open sea. Newman gathered the commandos and issued three orders: Do the best to get back to England, no surrender until all ammunition is exhausted and no surrender at all if they could help it. With that, they headed into the city to face the Germans and attempt an escape over land.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Commando prisoners under German escort

The Commandos were quickly surrounded. They fought until their ammunition was expended before proceeding with their only remaining option: surrender. Five commandos did manage to escape the German trap though and make their way through France, neutral Spain, and to British Gibraltar, from which they returned to England.

As the Germans recaptured the port, they also captured 215 British commandos and Royal Navy sailors. Unaware that the Campbeltown lodged in the dry dock was a bomb waiting to explode, a German officer blithely told Lt. Commander Sam Beattie, who had been commanding the Campbeltown, the damage caused by the ramming would only take a matter of weeks to repair. Just as he did the Campbeltown exploded, killing 360 people in the area and destroying the docks – putting them out of commission for the remainder of the war.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
HMS Campbeltown wedged in the dock gates. Note the exposed forward gun position on Campbeltown and the German anti-aircraft gun position on the roof of the building at the rear.

The British paid dearly for this success. Of over 600 personnel involved, only 227 returned to England. Besides those taken prisoner, the British also had 169 killed in action. The raid generated a large number of awards for gallantry, one of the highest concentrations for any battle. Five Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest award for gallantry, were awarded, two posthumously. There were a total of 84 other decorations for the raiders ranging from the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to the Military Medal.

Close up of HMS Campbeltown after the raid. Note the shell damage in the hull and upper works and the German personnel on board the vessel. Close up of HMS Campbeltown after the raid. Note the shell damage in the hull and upper works and the German personnel on board the vessel.

The raid infuriated Hitler and, along with other raids by commandos, caused the Germans to spread troops all along the coast to defend against future raids or invasions. More importantly, the destruction of the St. Nazaire port denied the Germans repair facilities for large ships on the Atlantic coast. Due to the daring nature of the operation and the high price paid for success, the action came to be called “The Greatest Raid of All.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Navy ship scored America’s first submarine kill of WWII

The destroyer USS Ward (DD 139/APD 16) is famous for being the first American ship to sink a Japanese vessel, a mini-sub, just hours before the main attack on Pearl Harbor. But less famous is the first American ship to sink a Nazi U-boat. That impact of that ship’s kill, incidentally, would reverberate over six decades later.


The misfits of D-Day and World War II
USS Roper shortly after she was commissioned in 1919. (US Navy photo)

That vessel was USS Roper (DD 147), a Wickes-class destroyer. Wickes-class destroyers were built during World War I and carried four four-inch guns, a single three-inch gun, and a dozen 21-inch torpedo tubes. These vessels were feeling their age as World War II bubbled up on the horizon but were pressed into service to hold the line until newer vessels came into the fleet.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Aerial view of USS Roper. (US Navy photo)

According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, the Roper had taken part in a variety of deployments in the peacetime Navy between World Wars. The vessel had been off Cape Cod when Pearl Harbor was attacked. After a quick refit, she was escorting convoys. Then came the fateful encounter.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
On March 31, 1942, USS Roper rescued 70 survivors, including this mother and child. (US Navy photo)

U-Boat.net reports that on April 14, 1942, the Roper detected U-85 on the surface, about 20 miles from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, two weeks after rescuing 70 survivors from a sunken merchant ship. First, the destroyer opened fire, scoring a number of hits. As the fatally stricken U-boat slipped beneath the surface, the destroyer unleashed a salvo of depth charges to ensure a kill. None of U-85’s crew survived.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
This photo, showing members of the crew of the Nazi submarine U-85, was recovered by USS Roper after the sinking. (US Navy photo)

Almost six decades after the kill, the U-85’s wreck was looted and private divers made off with an Enigma machine. In the wake of that incident, Congress passed the Sunken Military Craft Act, which provides tough penalties for looting submerged war graves.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
This damage, done by a 1945 kamikaze hit, ended the wartime service of USS Roper. (US Navy photo)

After that kill, the Roper still served, doing a number of convoy runs. Then, she was converted to a destroyer transport and re-designated APD 20. In 1945, she was damaged by a kamikaze. Repairs were still underway when Japan surrendered. She was sold for scrap in 1946.

Articles

The reason the British military formed the Special Air Service

In World War II, the British needed a special group of men to tip the scales in North Africa and they came up with the Special Air Service.


The SAS, originally put together as L Detachment of the Special Air Services Brigade in an effort to mislead the Germans and Italians as to the size of the unit, was tasked with conducting desert raids behind enemy lines.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
An SAS jeep manned by Sgt. Schofield and Trooper Jeavons of 1st SAS near Geilenkirchen, Germany, on November 18, 1944. (Photo: British Army Sgt. Hewitt)

The paratroopers of the SAS failed in their first mission but were stunningly successful in their second when they destroyed 60 enemy aircraft on the ground with no casualties.

As the unit continued to rack up victories, they were given more daring missions and better equipment. One team was even tasked with assassinating German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in France but was unable to reach him before he was injured and evacuated in an unrelated incident.

The SAS history is clearly and quickly laid out in this video from Simple History. Check it out below:

Articles

This lone Gurkha rifleman stopped three Japanese tanks in their tracks

It takes a Gurkha to save a village.


In 1944, the Japanese were still advancing into British-dominated Burma-India theater. Their progress was slowed due to dense jungles, steep mountains, and the fact that they were trampling all over the backyards of the world’s best soldiers.

One of those was 19-year-old Ganju Lama. Lama was a Rifleman in the 1st Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, an anti-tank unit. This training would soon come in handy. They were part of an effort to recapture the city of Imphal in eastern India, along the Burma border.

The Japanese rolled into the area with 37mm guns mounted on Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Early model Chi-Ha tanks, like the kind Ganju Lama used to eat for breakfast.

In his first contact with the Japanese outside of Imphal, he used a projectile, infantry, anti-tank (or PIAT) rifle to disable one of the tanks. The Gurkhas then fell back, with Lama covering their retreat. Three weeks later, Ganju Lama met another company of Japanese tanks.

That fight would go a very different way.

Japanese artillery opened up on the Gurkhas in the morning of June 12th and rained death on them for more than an hour. As soon as the rain let up, enemy infantry supported by three tanks tore through the British lines near Lama’s position. The Gurkhas counter-attacked but were soon bogged down.

That’s when Ganju Lama picked up a PIAT and went to work.

Bleeding from one leg, as well as his left arm and right hand, he crawled within 30 yards of the enemy tanks. He took out the first tank and then the second, using one round apiece.

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This is a photo of the actual destruction Lama wreaked on the Japanese tanks. (UK Army Museum photo)

As the tank crews abandoned their vehicles, he launched a furious grenade attack, using only his teeth to pull the pin and his good arm to throw.

According to the Guardian, Lama wouldn’t allow himself to be evacuated until he killed or wounded the last of the enemy crewmen.

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Lama also earned the Military Medal for covering his unit’s fall back three weeks prior.

Ganju Lama was awarded the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest award for gallantry, for his actions that day. He would survive his wounds and the war, living to the ripe old age of 77.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why the French are better at war than you think

The United States and France do not always see eye-to-eye on military matters. In 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle pulled France from NATO during the height of the Cold War to preserve French independence. (Nicolas Sarkozy rejoined the alliance in 2009.) France tested nuclear devices well into the 1990s, decades after most of the other nuclear powers signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Most recently, France begged off on joining the U.S.-U.K. “Coalition of the Willing” to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq.


And because of the world wars of the 20th Century, the French military tends to be seen with disdain. The French didn’t fare so well in World War I, as the Germans’ drive through Belgium resulted in much of the fighting being done on French soil. The inability to repel the German forces made the French seem weak. Truthfully, it was a multinational force who failed to expel the invaders, so it’s not entirely France’s fault. And then of course, the quick capitulation and subsequent collaboration of France to the Nazis in World War II gave them the reputation they have today.

The truth is the French armed forces are much more aggressive and capable than these few events would have you believe. Aside from the French Foreign Legion, who are noteworthy in their own right, France projects military power all over Europe, Africa, and Asia, and they’re really good at it. They just have a bad rep. It was the French, led by Charles Martel who kept the Muslims from conquering Western Europe at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. Since then, the French have had their wins and losses, just like anyone else.

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You might have heard of some.

In WWII, Free French forces had the élan to fight their own countrymen who had sided with the collaborationist Vichy government. Free French troops worked in concert with the British and Americans throughout the war. Those who could not escape the fall of France in 1940 fought on as partisans for four years under the Nazi occupation, assisting with U.S. and British intelligence operations, assassinations, sabotage, and were essential to planning the D-Day invasions. The operators of the French Résistance are symbolic of underground resistance movements to this day.

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Vive la résistance!

After World War II, the French experienced a number of setbacks in its former colonies, most notably in French Indochina (aka Vietnam – and we in the U.S. know that war wasn’t as easily winnable as it might have seemed at the time), and in Algiers, where the independence movement led to a series of bloody, brutal attacks and counter attacks between French forces and the Algerian rebels. Since then, France has been resolute in its ideals and willing and able to back up those ideals with military force.

In response to the Nov. 2015 attacks on Paris from ISIS (Daesh), France immediately launched at least 30 air strikes against the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa alone. French audacity led the way for the U.S. to hit ISIS oil facilities in Iraq and Syria, a main source of the terror group’s operating funds. The nuclear-powered French carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently en route to the Mediterranean to support anti-ISIS operations.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II

The Charles de Gaulle led an expedition of the one-fourth of the French Navy that supported operations in Afghanistan. The French launched 140 air strikes to support operations on the ground during the 2001 invasion as well as lending its recon aircraft to support U.S. special operations forces and then conventional forces in Operation Anaconda. French ground forces have been in Afghanistan since 2010, and 88 troops died there.

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SAROBI, Afghanistan – French army soldiers prepare their vehicles for a convoy prior to departing camp for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, Operation Eagle. (ISAF photo by MC1 Michael E. Wagoner)

France is especially active in its former African colonies. During the 2004 Ivorian Civil War, the French sent 2,500 troops to keep the peace and prevent the sides from slaughtering each other. When French and Western civilians were rescued by French military helicopters as mobs of Ivorians raided Westerner’s homes. When Ivorian government forces, ostensibly under the guise of attacking rebel positions, hit a French base in Bouaké, killing nine and injuring 31, the French retaliated by an overland march on Yamoussoukro airport, taking out much of the Ivorian Air Force on the ground, and then capturing the country’s main airport in Abidjan.

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The French returned to Ivory Coast in 2011 to finish off president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to concede his election loss . The French ousted Gbagbo and arrested him, then subdued mercenaries hired by the former president.

That same year, French forces intervened in Libya to recon the country and take out artillery and armor bound for dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s effort to fill the streets of Benghazi with “rivers of blood.” France also assisted with the imposition of NATO “no-fly zones,” giving Libyan rebels the air support needed to even the odds of the war against Qaddafi’s regime.

 

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Part of a group of six Palmaria heavy howitzers of the Gaddafi forces destroyed by French Rafale airplanes at the west-southern outskirts of Benghazi, Libya.

 

In 2012, an Islamist group in Mali called Ansar Dine backed Tuareg tribes and secular militia in declaring independence in the Northern area of the former colony of France. They quickly captured three of the country’s largest cities and imposed strict Sharia law. The power vacuum attracted insurgents and jihadists from other Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The Malian government fell in a coup led by Malian troops unhappy with the government’s handling of the crisis.

Once a civilian interim government was re-established in the capital of Bamako, Islamist militants began to push toward the country’s center, and the French sent in the marines. French airstrikes stopped the Islamist advance and French troops helped the Malians recapture the vital city of Konna. By the time the French and Malians reached Timbuktu, Islamist resistance faded to nil. The entire operation took six months.

 

The misfits of D-Day and World War II
Islamist truck convoy hit by French airstrike near Gao in 2012. (Photo by Blake Stilwell)

 

Today, France leads a 3,000-strong counterterrorism force in Africa, spanning Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Chad. They are the sole Western, NATO country in Operation Barkhane, fighting Islamist presence in West Africa, fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked militants throughout the region.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This unlucky general was forced to surrender to Washington and Napoleon

British Gen. Charles O’Hara was, by most reports, a dedicated and brave officer. He began his military career at the age of 12 as an ensign and then fought in the Seven Years War, attacked through a raging river while under fire in the Revolutionary War, and continued leading his men forward after being struck in both the chest and thigh during a battle with Nathaniel Greene.


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British Gen. Charles O’Hara had a distinguished career punctuated by multiple surrenders and some time in jail.

Which made things sort of awkward when it came time for him to surrender British forces to groups of ragtag revolutionaries.

Twice.

While the surrender at Yorktown is generally referred to as Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendering to Gen. George Washington, Cornwallis actually claimed illness, preventing him from conducting the surrender personally. Instead, he sent O’Hara, a brigadier general at this point, in his stead.

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It’s titled ‘The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown,’ but then-Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara actually conducted this surrender.

O’Hara initially tried to surrender to a French general who promptly pointed out that he wasn’t in command. O’Hara would have to give his sword to that guy over there, Gen. George Washington, a farmer and colonial who had been deemed too country for a British officer commission.

So, O’Hara presented Cornwallis’s sword to Washington. Accounts differ at this point as to exactly what happened.

In most accounts, Washington did not even let O’Hara reach him, directing the man instead to present the sword to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who had been forced to surrender in May, 1780, in Charleston.

Whatever the case, O’Hara got out of it alright. He was promoted to major general as he began his trip back to Britain, so it appeared that he wasn’t blamed for the failure in the colonies and his reputation as a rising star remained intact. As a major general, he was later named military governor of Gibraltar.

But then he got promoted to lieutenant general and was appointed military governor of Toulon — and that was a huge problem.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II

The British and Spanish arrival at Toulon was nearly unopposed, but still a little chaotic.

See, Toulon was an important French city, housing nearly half of the French fleet, but the French Republic wasn’t super popular there. Many of the (rich) people who lived there wanted a return to royal rule, and so they allowed an Anglo-Spanish fleet to take the city nearly unopposed and everyone’s old friend, O’Hara, was soon named the governor.

The French Republic, unsurprisingly, wanted neither a return of the monarchy nor to give up such an most important city and port.

O’Hara still could have come out of this well. He was a brave warrior with plenty of troops, artillery, and a massive fleet at his back. He held the city. He was a hero once again. He could’ve been on easy street for the rest of his career. General. Governor. Pimp.

But there was one problem across the trenches from him: a young artillery officer named Napoleon.

The misfits of D-Day and World War II

Napoleon was young, relatively inexperienced, but still skilled as all hell.

Napoleon was not yet famous, but this battle would lay the major groundwork. The French siege at Toulon initially floundered, despite Napoleon offering very sound artillery advice and strategies. Two commanders were relieved before a third arrived, heard a couple ideas from Napoleon, and said, “well, get on with your bad self, then.”

Napoleon took command of additional forces and gave the suggestions that would form the major plans. The battle started to shift with the French taking many of the outlying forts and redoubts.

O’Hara, always bold, saw too many French guns in redoubts around his city and decided to personally lead an attack against them.

On Nov. 28, 1793, he and 3,000 men marched out of the city under the cover of artillery fire at 4 a.m. and were able to surprise the French positions at Hauteur des Arenes near Toulon. The French Republicans retreated quickly and messily. O’Hara, instead of focusing on spiking the guns, reducing the position, and returning to the city, decided to give chase.

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But Napoleon was always watching… waiting…

O’Hara was fighting his way toward the French division commander when Napoleon and a few other officers charged into his flank with hundreds of men. O’Hara’s force broke and began a hasty retreat back to the city, struggling to stay ahead of Napoleon.

Unfortunately for O’Hara, always one to lead from the front, he had no chance of getting back around the French and was forced to surrender. He was taken prisoner and sent to Paris for confinement.

The British general spent two years in a French prison before returning to England. He would survive seven more years, long enough to see Washington serve as America’s first president and Napoleon become the First Consul of the French Consulate.

Probably sour grapes for the general who fought ably against both of them, but not quite well enough to defeat either.

MIGHTY HISTORY

4 Union generals that were better than any of the ‘famous’ ones

Every workplace has them: the loudest, most boisterous employees, constantly talking about how much work they’re doing and how good they are at their jobs or making a scene with their after-work activities. Meanwhile, quietly plugging away somewhere, there are the employees who really are good at their job, their performance going unnoticed because they simply just want to finish up and go home.

The Union Army in the Civil War was no different. Grant struggled with alcohol, Sherman had to work to maintain his sanity, and George B. McClellan just knew everyone in all the right places. Meanwhile, these guys were chugging along, slowly winning the Civil War.


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Samuel R. Curtis

Missouri is likely a forgotten theater of the Civil War, but for the Union at the outset of the war, Missouri was the one bright spot that shined through an otherwise dreary day. The reason for that is Samuel R. Curtis. While the Union Army in Virginia was spinning its wheels, Curtis was kicking the Confederate Army out of Missouri and into Arkansas. For the rest of the war, he would be bogged down in insurgent violence in the region (Kansas was a violent mess before the war even started).

The Civil War West of the Mississippi was dominated by the Union Army, and it’s largely because of Curtis.

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Nathan Kimball

You may not have heard of Nathan Kimball, but that’s okay because he has one thing most Union generals could never have: a victory over Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson – in the Shenandoah Valley, no less. Kimball was a doctor and veteran of the Mexican-American War who assumed command of the 14th Indiana at the start of the Civil War. As Jackson began his famous 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, he tried to knock out a force a Kernstown that was guarded by the 14th, but it was the Hoosiers there who gave Jackson the bloody nose instead.

Kimball’s unit then went on to earn the nickname “The Gibraltar Brigade” for their assaults on the sunken road at Antietam. His future victories came at places like Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and he was a division commander during the Battles of Franklin and Nashville that destroyed the Confederate Army in Tennessee.

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August Willich

The Civil War broke out after Prussian general August Willich emigrated to the United States. Never one to bow away from a fight, he decided he would stand up and defend his adopted homeland by raising a unit of German immigrants and drilling them into a crack Prussian unit the likes of which the Confederates had never seen.

Despite being briefly captured and held prisoner, Willich’s Prussians performed like champions at Shiloh and Chickamauga but it was his unit that broke the Confederates at Chattanooga.

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Gen. George H. Thomas

Thomas might be the most underrated General of the entire Civil War. In January 1862, Thomas was leading a simple training command in Kentucky but Confederate movements forced him into a fight. At the Battle of Mill Springs, it was George H. Thomas that gave the Union its first significant win of the war. Thomas would go on to finish the war undefeated but unglorified – because he moved slowly and deliberately, caring more about his men than about his legacy as a commander.

He was responsible for some of the most key Union wins of the war. His defense at Chickamauga saved the Union Army from destruction and his later victory at Nashville completely destroyed the Confederate Army of Tennessee under John Bell Hood.

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