It’s no secret that the early American revolutionists were up against a serious enemy when it came to the British Navy. Not only was the British Navy, one of the most experienced in the world, but their fleet was massive. Compared to the small, inexperienced, and fledgling Navy of early America, we almost didn’t stand a chance.
That is until tens of thousands of citizen sailors stood up and answered the call for freedom.
Fed up with British society’s confines, these tens of thousands of sailors played a critical role in America’s quest for independence, but are largely forgotten from the history books.
These so-called privateers accounted for more than 2,000 sailors in our early Navy and were all commissioned by both the Continental Congress and states. Together, the armada preyed on British ships on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, which severely disrupted the British economy and turned British public opinion against the war.
But who were these privateers?
A tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages allows countries at war to license private seamen to seize and plunder enemy vessels. It’s important here to note that privateers were different from pirates because pirates didn’t have legal authorization to plunder ships. Privateers had official letters from governments condoning their actions. Admittedly, the difference between pirates and privateers seems a little murky at best. But either way, the privateers at the helms of ships in the days of the Revolutionary War had one goal in mind: destroy as many British ships as possible.
Early America was as cash strapped as one would expect a fledgling colony to be. We were attempting to extricate ourselves from British rule, which was expensive. Early leaders knew that there’s no way our inexperienced Navy would ever be able to challenge Britain on the seas, but we did have one specific advantage. We didn’t really have anything to lose.
So the Continental Congress decided to capitalize on that. It issued money to privateers as guerrilla-style naval disruptors and told them to do whatever it took to stop British ships. And that’s exactly what they did.
Privateers were required to post bonds of up to 5,000 pounds as collateral to ensure that captives taken from British ships wouldn’t be mistreated. These sailors for hire also promised not to knowingly raid American or neutral ships. George Washington leased the ships and set out to man them with competent sailors up to the task.
The chance was once in a lifetime, and Washington sweetened the deal by offering one-third of all the goods the privateers captured and sold. In this appeal to the privateers’ financial self-interest, soon, Washington had more volunteers than he knew what to do with. Financial incentive coupled with a newfound patriotism for their fledgling country ensured helped awake the early spirit of capitalism, and for the first time in their lives, these sailors realized they might actually be able to make some money.
Whalers, merchants and fishermen set out to convert their ships. By May 1775, there were over 100 New England privateers roaming the high seas, all with the same solitary goal in mind. Privateering became so popular that the Continental Congress started issuing blank commission forms for sailors to fill out themselves.
Had it not been for the blossoming spirit of patriotism and the allure of cold hard cash, it’s possible that the Revolutionary War might have turned out very differently. Privateers helped to damage the British economy and undermine British policy, all helpful for the war effort. Ultimately, the privateers helped to capture over 2,000 British naval vessels. Faced with two fronts, one on British soil and one on American soil, the British Navy was very challenged to keep up with the constant barrage of privateers. Ultimately, this helped us win the war and gain our independence from Britain.
Nikola Tesla, the famed pioneer of electrical technology who rivaled even Thomas Edison, designed and displayed a working drone in 1898 — nearly 16 years before World War I — that he saw as a weapon that would end all wars.
At the show, crowds were shocked to see the boat respond to Tesla’s commands without any visible connection between the control box and the small craft. When Tesla patented the invention, he billed it as a tool of exploration, transportation, and war.
From Matthew Scroyer, a journalist who found the old patent:
Tesla wrote in his drone patent that unmanned vehicles would bring world peace through mutually assured destruction. pic.twitter.com/3a9Vra5iNS
Tesla’s military plan was that the drone boat would give way to other drones, each more destructive than the last. Once nations could fight wars using robots without risking their troops, the potential for unlimited destruction was supposed to stay people’s hands and bring about a “permanent peace among nations.”
Unfortunately for Tesla, military interest in the weapon was muted, and his patent expired without any serious interest from the War or Navy Departments. Drones didn’t take off as a weapon until the end of the 1900s, and their ever-widening adoption has not ended warfare.
Aphrodite was a major failure with more damage done to England by malfunctioning B-8s than was done to Germany. Some B-8 pilots were killed by premature detonations including future-President John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Navy Lt. Joseph Kennedy.
Ancient Rome is credited with major contributions to modern day language, religion, law, art, and government. Indeed, the Roman Empire was filled with breathtaking architecture and an intricate and fascinating socio-economic culture. But it was also full of drama.
Most people know at least a few key facts about Julius Caesar and his infamous assassination on the Ides of March. But as the Roman Republic crumbled with him and the Roman Empire rose in its place, the rulers that came after him were no less controversial. Extravagance, executions, and extreme religious persecution stand at the forefront of many Roman emperor’s legacies. And that’s not mentioning the sex scandals.
So here’s a list of the absolute worst Roman emperors, in order from the mildly incompetent to the devastatingly unstable.
Diocletian, 284-305 CE
Emperor Diocletian deserves some credit, as his rule marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century. His governmental reforms are cited as being one of the main contributors to the Roman Empire’s longevity for the next millennium. Diocletian regained control over a wild military force, suppressed enemy threats along the Empire’s borders, and revised the tax system in a broken economy.
However, he’s also credited with one of the most brutal attempts to purge Christianity in history, which definitely resides in the “cons” column. Diocletian revoked the legal rights of Christians, trying to encourage his citizens back to a more traditional worship of the old Roman gods. He razed churches and destroyed religious scriptures, and went even further to prohibit Christian’s from even gathering to worship. After a suspicious fire within the imperial palace, Diocletian’s belief in a Christian conspiracy led to a spree of scourging, torture, and beheading.
In 305 CE, after becoming greatly weakened by a severe illness, Diocletian resigned from his rule, passing the torch to someone with the strength to bear the Empire’s burdens. The first person to willingly abdicate from the role, the former Emperor spent the rest of his days tending a vegetable garden—sounds like a pretty fulfilling retirement.
Elagabalus, 218-222 CE
Elagabalus became Emperor at the tender age of 14, kicking off a reign that would be known for sex scandals and religious controversy—not exactly the sort of things you expect from someone fresh out of puberty.
Emperor Elagabalus started out in life as a high priest serving the Syrian sun god he shared a name with. When he came to rule over Rome, his devotion to the god drove him to try and elevate him to the same status as Jupiter, a move which greatly displeased the Empire. He even insisted upon marrying a Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa, which was in direct opposition to not only Roman tradition, but to the law.
On the more salacious side, it’s said that Elagabalus prostituted himself throughout the palace. He was married to five different women, and took on countless lovers of all sexes. He sent servants out into the city to procure lovers for him, and even opened the imperial baths up to the public to enjoy the spectacle of watching others bathe.
Some historians say that Elagabalus might have been one of the first transgender historical figures, offering large amounts of money to any physician who would be able to successfully administer gender reassignment surgery. This was regarded as wholly scandalous by the people of Rome, casting him in a negative light he couldn’t hope to overcome.
Elagabalus’s general incompetence on the throne led to the devaluation of the Roman currency. Showing his immaturity further, he began appointing lovers to crucial political positions. So while history tends to be unfavorable towards him for his personal choices, it does seem likely that he was unfit as an emperor mostly due to the fact that he was a literal child.
The Emperor’s youth did him no favors in the end, however. At 18 years old, Elagabalus and his eccentric behavior were brought to an end by the Praetorian Guard. After Elagabalus stripped his cousin’s titles and wealth, the Guard, who much preferred said cousin, rebelled against Elagabalus, killing both him and his mother in the violence.
Tiberius, 13-37 CE
There were plenty of things that Emperor Tiberius did right. He avoided needless and financially draining military campaigns and instead relied heavily on diplomacy. He reinforced the borders of the Empire. He even kept the Empire’s treasury generously stocked.
However, Tiberius never really wanted to rule as emperor, and that was very apparent. He left many responsibilities to the Senate and was otherwise distant and reclusive. He left Rome in the middle of his reign—a decision widely regarded as the worst one he could possibly make—and opened himself up to a reputation fully up to interpretation.
Whether these claims are rooted in truth or based fully in fabrication is impossible to know at this point, but either way, Tiberius was hated enough to get tongues wagging with the most vicious of talk. During his stay on the island of Capri, Tiberius was accused of flinging people off of cliffs for minor slights and engaging in disturbing sexual acts with very young boys. While that doesn’t have very much to do with governing an empire, it’s pretty much the last thing you want out of a ruler.
Tiberius earned a reputation as a bloodthirsty emperor after a mess grew out of a man named Sejanus making a grab for power. Sejanus tried to set himself up as Tiberius’s next heir by assassinating Tiberius’s son. Tiberius, of course, called for the death of not only Sejanus, but of those who were associated with him—including his children.
It seems likely, too, that much of his bad reputation comes from his connection to Caligula, who you’ll hear much more of later.
Caracalla, 211-217 CE
For the first 13 years of his reign, Caracalla ruled as a co-emperor alongside first his father, Septimius Severus, and then his brother, Geta. In 211 CE, he had his brother assassinated by the loyal members of his Praetorian Guard. Not satisfied, Caracalla went a step further to slaughter most of his brother’s supporters as well. In a further act of insult, Caracalla removed Geta’s image from paintings, coins, and statues, struck him from record, and made it an actual crime to utter his name.
On top of being generally regarded as a tyrannical and cruel emperor, Caracalla wasn’t all that effective in other aspects of his rule. He put into effect an edict which declared all free inhabitants of the Empire to be official citizens… so he could collect taxes from a wider base of people. He depleted much of the Empire’s funds trying to keep his army happy and often engaged in ruthless and unnecessary military campaigns.
Caracalla had an obsession with Alexander the Great, and in a fit of erratic behavior went on to persecute those philosophers of the Aristotelian school based solely off the legend that Aristotle poisoned Alexander. His behavior only got worse when, after discovering a play mocking him in the city of Alexandria, he dispatched his troops to massacre, loot, and plunder the city.
In 217 AD, Caracalla was stabbed to death by a defected soldier—an almost ironic end, considering his adoration for his own army.
Maximinus Thrax, 235-238 CE
Emperor Maximinus Thrax was a very large man, and he was also largely hated. In direct contrast to Emperor Diocletian, he’s often considered to be the ruler who caused the Crisis of the Third Century. He brought Rome to near ruin with his exhaustive military campaigns, overextending his soldiers by dispatching them to multiple fronts at once.
His distrust and distaste for anyone apart from his army did him no favors and caused social instability. Maximinus even had members of his own family put to death. He was a man who preferred to rule by conquest rather than favor and became known for wrecking public property and setting fires to any village he passed through.
His short three-year rule ended in 238 CE, when members of the Imperial Roman army assassinated him alongside his son and advisors.
Nero, 54-68 CE
Nero’s 14-year reign had some significant successes, including the negotiation of peace with the Parthian Empire and the quelling of Boudica’s revolt. While the upper class considered him overly extravagant and undignified, the lower classes of Rome actually had a strong positive opinion towards their ruler. This was true despite the fact that some of his methods leaned toward tyrannical madness. Seeing as he was only 16 years old when he took the throne, that’s not all that surprising—adolescence is hard.
In the beginning of his reign, Nero’s rule was closely guided by his mother, Agrippina the Younger, much as she had orchestrated Nero’s rise as emperor. Agrippina married his great-uncle and previous emperor, Claudius, and arranged for Nero to marry his new stepsister, Octavia. By 59 CE, an unexplained falling out caused Nero to order his troops to have her killed. This wouldn’t be the last time he organized a death.
In 62 CE, Nero divorced Octavia, citing that she was incapable of producing an heir. When his subjects looked negatively at this decision, he had Octavia exiled. Not long after that—either to further change public opinion or to solidify his claim to the throne—he accused her of adultery and had her put to death. His second wife, Poppaea Sabina, died in 65 CE. Some writers of ancient times say that Nero was responsible for this death, too, though others disagree.
Nero’s legacy as a madman is most closely tied to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, which completely destroyed three of Rome’s 14 districts, leaving another seven heavily damaged. Many myths surround the terrible tragedy which killed hundreds of citizens, including the dramatically evil story of Nero fiddling as Rome fell to ashes.
In actuality, the fiddle wasn’t even in existence at the time. While some classical sources cite that Nero was on the roof of his palace singing from “The Sack of Ilium,” others place him dozens of miles away from the flames.
While it’s impossible to know the truth of the fire’s origins, many people blamed Nero directly for the destruction. It was believed that he was intentionally making way for a new city aesthetic. Whether out of genuine belief or a desperate attempt at scapegoating, Nero blamed the fire on followers of the growing Christian religion.
Nero set out to cruelly persecute the Christians, implementing an array of creative tortures and deaths, including wrapping them in animal skins to be torn apart by dogs.
After that, Nero’s rule started to crumble. Reconstruction efforts had stretched the Roman currency thin, and Nero’s indecision in dealing with further revolts caused widespread instability. In 68, his Praetorian Guard renounced their loyalty and declared Nero an enemy of the people. In one last dramatic flair, Nero committed suicide before he could be executed.
Caligula, 37-41 CE
There aren’t many reliable surviving accounts of Caligula’s reign. Even if the myriad stories surrounding him are fabrications, he’d have to be pretty unpopular to generate that kind of libel in the first place.
To be fair, Caligula had a bit of a rough start in life. He was the sole survivor after his entire family perished either in imprisonment or directly at the hands of Emperor Tiberius. He was then taken in by the emperor and indulged in all of his worst whims, until Tiberius passed and Caligula took to the throne at 25 years old.
In the first six months of his rule, things actually went pretty well. He cut unfair taxes, recalled those sentenced to exile, and granted military bonuses to soldiers. However, after a strange illness overtook him, his recovery was shrouded in a madness that gave way to sadistic and perverse tendencies. He became known for uttering the phrase, “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.”
Any perceived mockery from his subjects was met with the punishment of death. In fact, in his infinite paranoia, Caligula began sending those closest to him off to exile or death—including his adopted son. His cruelty led to him gaining a sense of satisfaction out of making parents watch as their children were killed.
His arrogance rose to new heights as he declared that he was an actual living god. Caligula even had the heads of statues of gods and goddesses replaced with his own.
Further accounts of his insanity include throwing an entire section of a gladiatorial audience into the arena to be eaten by beasts for his own amusement, planning to appoint his horse as a consul, and turning the palace into a veritable brothel.
Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard after only four years as emperor. The man was so hated by the Senate that they even rallied to have him erased from the record of Roman history. Thanks to this campaign, it remains unclear to this day what is fact and what is fiction in the Caligulan reign.
Commodus, 180-192 CE
Commodus was appointed as a co-ruler by his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in 177 CE. Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE, leaving his narcissistic and self-indulgent son as the sole Emperor of Rome.
Because Caligula couldn’t be the only one to have all the fun, Commodus also thought himself to be a god, referring to himself as Hercules reborn and forcing others to follow suit. He swanned around the city in lion skins and participated in gladiatorial events—an act in which was considered scandalous for a ruler to partake.
What’s worse: He often chose to compete against weak soldiers who were sickly or maimed from the war, sometimes tying two of them together to club them to death with a single strike. To add insult to the already grave injury, he also exorbitantly charged Rome for his arena appearances.
Commodus’s self-love knew no bounds. He changed the calendar months to reflect his own self-bestowed epithets. He shamelessly exiled and executed his wife and proudly kept a harem of hundreds. He forced his advisors to take the fall for political blunders and had entire families slaughtered on suspicion of conspiracy.
Personally nominated for the Nobel Prize a record 84 times, Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld was one of the most influential physicists of all time, both because of his own accomplishments in the field and the many dozens of his students who turned into superstars in the world of science (including having four doctoral students go on to win the Nobel Prize, along with three of his other postgraduate students also taking home the award- the most eventual Nobel laureates all taught by one person).
Born on December 5, 1868 in Königsberg, East Prussia, Sommerfeld began his career as a student of mathematics and the physical sciences at Albertina (aka University of Königsberg) in his hometown, where he received a Ph.D. on October 24, 1891.
After a year of compulsive military service ended in 1893, unlike so many academics of his era, Sommerfeld continued to serve as a volunteer for the next eight years on the side. Physically impressive, with a Prussian bearing and wearing a fencing scar on his magnificently mustachioed face, while in the service, Sommerfeld was famously described as managing “to give the impression of a colonel of the hussars,” rather than a book-worm academic.
As for that scar, in his first year of study, the near “compulsory drinking bouts and fencing duels” not only resulted in said scar, but also hindered his studies significantly, which he later came to regret as wasted time.
Apparently making up for lost efforts in his youth, Sommerfeld left Königsberg for the University of Göttingen and after two years as an assistant to more experienced mathematics professors, he earned his Privatdozent (authorization to teach at the university level) in 1895. Rapidly moving up the ranks, he was appointed to chair the mathematics department at the Bergakademie in Clausthal-Zellerfeld in 1897. The following year, he became editor of the famous Enzyklopädie der mathematischen Wissenschaften, a post he held through 1926.
Sommerfeld moved on to become Chair of Applied Mechanics at the Königliche Technische Hochschule Aachen, and it was in Aachen that he produced his theory of hydrodynamics. Also at Aachen, Sommerfeld mentored Peter Debye, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1936 for “his contributions to the study of molecular structure.”
In 1906, Sommerfeld accepted the position as director of the new Theoretical Physics Institute at the University of Munich, where he mentored Werner Heisenberg in hydrodynamics theory; Heisenberg later won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”
While in Munich, Sommerfeld also mentored Wolfgang Pauli on his thesis on quantum theory, and Pauli also went on to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1945, for his discovery of the eponymous Pauli exclusion principle (which stated that two or more identical fermions can not be in the same quantum state within a quantum system at the same time).
If all that wasn’t enough, he also mentored Hans Bethe while at the University of Munich; Bethe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his theory of stellar nucleosynthesis (i.e., when chemical elements in stars change due to nuclear fusion).
While his own direct contributions to advancing the world of physics were prodigious, including his pioneering work in quantum theory, it was arguably for his teaching ability that Sommerfeld was most revered in his lifetime, with Albert Einstein once remarking, “What I especially admire about you is that you have, as it were, pounded out of the soil such a large number of young talents.”
Mathematician Morris Kline further stated of Sommerfeld that he “was at the forefront of the work in electromagnetic theory, relativity and quantum theory and he was the great systematizer and teacher who inspired many of the most creative physicists in the first thirty years of this century.”
Famed Jewish mathematician, physicist, and Nobel Prize winner Max Born (who was forced to flee Germany in 1933) went on about Sommerfeld’s talent for cultivating young minds who so often went on to great scientific achievements of their own:
Theoretical physics is a subject which attracts youngsters with a philosophical mind who speculate about the highest principles without sufficient foundations. It was just this type of beginner that he knew how to handle, leading them step by step to a realisation of their lack of actual knowledge and providing them with the skill necessary for fertile research. … He had the rare ability to have time to spare for his pupils, in spite of his duties and scientific work. … In this friendly and informal way of teaching a great part was played by invitations to join a skiing party on the ‘Sudelfeld’ two hours by rail from Munich. There he and his mechanic … were joint owners of a ski hut. In the evenings, when the simple meal was cooked, the dishes were washed, the weather and snow properly discussed, the talk invariably turned to mathematical physics, and this was the occasion for the receptive students to learn the master’s inner thoughts.
Going on about the man himself, Born stated,
Arnold Sommerfeld was one of the most distinguished representatives of the transition period between classical and modern theoretical physics. The work of his youth was still firmly anchored in the conceptions of the nineteenth century; but when in the first decennium of the century the flood of new discoveries, experimental and theoretical, broke the dams of tradition, he became a leader of the new movement, and in combining the two ways of thinking he exerted a powerful influence on the younger generation. This combination of a classical mind, to whom clarity of conception and mathematical rigour are essential, with the adventurous spirit of a pioneer, are the roots of his scientific success, while his exceptional gift of communicating his ideas by spoken and written word made him a great teacher.
Adding to his list of achievements, Sommerfeld eventually became chair of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft in 1918, a position previously held by Albert Einstein.
With the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, however, Sommerfeld was forced to watch many of his esteemed colleagues have to flee the country. As the aforementioned Morris Kline notes,
Sommerfeld’s life was saddened toward the end of his career by events in Germany. Anti-Semitism, always present in that country, became virulent in the Hitler period and Sommerfeld was obliged to witness the emigration of famous colleagues, including Einstein. All he could do was use the friendships he had built up during a one-year stay in the United States and a one-year round-the-world trip to help place the refugees. The loss of so many of its best men in this way together with World War II, destroyed the scientific strength of Germany, and Sommerfeld felt obliged to continue teaching until 1947, long after the usual retirement age of 65.
On that note, Sommerfeld had intended to retire much earlier, in 1936, putting forth one of his prized pupils, the aforementioned Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, as his hoped successor. However, as Heisenberg, like Sommerfeld, was considered by the Nazi party to be a Jewish sympathizer, ultimately the decidedly unaccomplished anti-Semite Wilhem Muller, with a lot of help from the Reich Education Ministry, was very controversial appointed to replace Sommerfeld as Professor of Theoretical Physics, despite Muller not even being a theoretical physicist. (Unsurprisingly, Muller was dismissed from the position in 1945 as a part of the denazification process that followed WWII.)
As for Sommerfeld’s once patriotic views, he wrote to Einstein shortly after Hitler took power,
I can assure you that the misuse of the word ‘national’ by our rulers has thoroughly broken me of the habit of national feelings that was so pronounced in my case. I would now be willing to see Germany disappear as a power and merge into a pacified Europe.
In any event, as for his own Nobel Prize aspirations, as alluded to, Sommerfeld’s contributions to theoretical physics were many and included groundbreaking work in quantum theory (including co-discovering the Sommerfeld-Wilson quantization rules in 1915), electromagnetism and hydrodynamics, and significantly advanced knowledge of X-ray wave theory, among other things.
Among his many awards were the Max-Planck Medal, the Lorentz Medal and the Oersted Medal, and he was also a member of the Royal Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
However, although he was nominated an astounding and record setting 84 times (the only other person close is Otto Stern, who was nominated 82 times before finally winning in 1943), Sommerfeld never won a Nobel Prize. His nominations for Physics were made in 1917, 1918, 1919 (twice), 1920, 1922 (four times), 1923 (twice), 1924, 1925 (six times), 1926 (three times), 1927 (three times), 1928 (three times), 1929 (nine times), 1930 (four times), 1931 (twice), 1932 (five times), 1933 (eight times), 1934 (six times), 1935, 1936 (twice), 1937 (eight times), 1940, 1948, 1949 (three times), 1950 (three times) and 1951 (four times).
Sommerfeld died on April 26, 1951 at the age of 82 as a result of a traffic accident that occurred while taking his grandchildren for a walk. At the time, he was quite hard of hearing and did not hear shouted warnings before he stepped in front of a moving truck. The distinguished scientist died two months later as a result of the injuries sustained in that incident.
Originally published on Today I Found Out in November 2017.
First used by the Russians in 1891, the Mosin-Nagant was modified from a standard service weapon to a sniper rifle in the 1930s. This five-shot, bolt-action rifle was a highly effective killing tool on the battlefield because of its sturdy construction and accuracy.
The Mosin-Nagant rifle typically weighs in at 8.8 pounds and has a muzzle velocity of nearly 3,000 feet per second — but the rifle is only as good as the man or woman who pulls its trigger.
During the Battle of Stalingrad, talented Russians snipers used the Mosin-Nagant PU version to wreak plenty of havoc against their Nazi adversaries. One of those talented sharpshooters was none other than the Soviet hero himself, Vasily Zaytsev.
Zaytsev’s remarkable story was brought to life in 2001’s feature film “Enemy at the Gates” starring Jude Law. As a young boy, he learned his expert marksmanship skills while hunting game and tracking wolves near his home in desolate Siberia.
In 1937, Zaytsev was recruited into the Red Army, volunteered to be transferred to the front lines and waged a one-man war against the Nazis and reportedly killed 250 enemy troops with his Mosin-Nagant.
Reportedly, Zaitsev was involved in a historical sniper duel with Maj. Konig, the former head of the German Army’s sniper school. During an afternoon of stalking one another, Zaitsev scored a righteous kill shot eliminating the German sniper from the war — using his famous Mosin-Nagant.
Roughly, 17 million Mosin–Nagant were produced during War World II, and its devastating 7.62 x 54R round is still used today in several Russian-made weapons.
Throughout World War II, Winston Churchill gave a number of speeches that galvanized the British public in the face of extreme hardship and convinced them to keep fighting that good fight against Adolf and his cronies.
Perhaps the most famous speech Churchill ever gave was the one he spent the longest time agonising over — “This was their finest hour,” where he stated in part,
What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
The speech was delivered just a month after Churchill became Prime Minister and at a time when the UK was reeling from the news that France had fallen (effectively leaving the British Empire to fight the Nazi war machine alone, until Hitler turned on the Soviet Union in 1941 and the Yanks joined in about six months after that). The speech had to somehow rally the entire country during what Churchill would eventually come to call “The Darkest Hour.” This is a goal the speech is generally accepted as having accomplished and then some, with Churchill’s words deeply resonating with the British public. In particular, Churchill’s sentiments about the British Isles standing strong in the face of what appeared to be impossible odds.
THEIR FINEST HOUR speech by Winston Churchill [BEST SOUND]
The speech, which lasted around 36 minutes, was first given in private to Parliament on June 18, 1940, and later to the British public via radio and it’s noted that Churchill was making revisions to it until quite literally the last possible moment. For example, when the Churchill Archives Centre dug up the very same copy of the speech Churchill used when he addressed Parliament, they found that it was covered in random annotations, some of which appear to have been made leading right up to just before he gave the speech.
Impressively, some of these literal last minutes additions ended up being amongst the most memorable lines from it. For example, the line “All shall be restored” which was noted as inspiring many a Britain to do their bit for the greater good of Europe, was a line Churchill scribbled in the margins of the speech when he sat on a bench in the House of Commons waiting to be called to speak.
It’s also noted that Churchill simply winged it at some points, making up some of the lines in the speech on the fly. This was something that was facilitated by Churchill’s insistence on printing the speech in blank verse format, which some experts believe allowed Churchill to read and visualise the speech as a piece of poetry, allowing him to better improvise and more comfortably find a natural rhythm when speaking.
Of course, no matter how good something is, even in the days before internet comments there’s always someone to criticize and, despite “This was their finest hour” being considered one of the finest oratory performances ever given, Churchill’s own secretary, Sir Jock Colville, was wildly unimpressed. Among other things, he noted in his diary that the speech was too long and that Churchill sounded tired when he read it. Given that the speech is often ranked alongside things like the Gettysburg Address, Sir Colville’s opinion evidently wasn’t one shared by many others, however.
Finally, because we kind of have to mention this, when Churchill delivered the speech to the British public via radio, he reportedly did so while smoking a comically large cigar which he kept burning in his mouth for virtually the entire time he was speaking…
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Vito Bertoldo almost didn’t make it into the Army. A former coal miner, he was exempt from the World War II draft due to his bad eyesight. Approved for limited duty after enlisting, he had to get special permission to join the infantry. It’s a good thing he did.
In December 1944, Germany launched Operation Northwind, what would become its last offensive in Western Europe. It was designed to destroy the U.S. 7th Army, whose supply lines were stretched after the Battle of the Bulge. That offensive would meet some major resistance in Hatten, France, specifically at the hands of Vito Bertoldo.
Bertoldo was assigned to protect the movement of a vital command post during a German attack. It was in good hands. As German infantry and armor advanced and the American lines began to crumble, Bertoldo moved outside of the building that housed the command post and set up a machine gun in the street.
For 12 hours, he held the entire street in full view of the advancing German infantry and tanks. Under fire from the tanks’ 88mm guns and small arms, he fought on, eventually moving back into the building. Once inside, he set his gun up on a table and fired through a window, blasting an entire group of German infantry.
As armored personnel carriers and more tanks approached, he waited for them to dismount before mowing them all down, even taking a tank shell in his position for his trouble. He simply got back up and got back to work. When the command post got a new position, he volunteered to stay behind and cover its withdrawal, staying in the building all night.
In the morning, he moved into another building and started another daylong defense, fighting off self-propelled howitzers, infantrymen, and tanks. He was hit by another 88mm round but survived. Before the Germans could finish him off, an American bazooka took out the vehicle.
Bertoldo went back to his gun, yet again, mowing down Germans as they tried to retreat. The command post was evacuated once more, this time under cover of darkness. But the Germans tried to assault the building before the evacuation could begin. This time, Bertoldo lobbed white phosphorous grenades into the massed enemy infantrymen until they broke and withdrew from the attack.
Once more a German tank round hit the room where Bertoldo was holed up, knocking him to the ground in a daze from 50 yards away. The only difference was this time, Bertoldo’s machine gun was destroyed. So he picked up his rifle and began to singlehandedly cover the movement of the command post to its new location.
This army of one secured his unit’s command post and all its movement against superior forces for a full two days without rest or relief, killing at least 40 Germans and holding back an entire enemy advance.
In the end, it wasn’t a Nazi bullet or tank round that would get Vito Bertoldo. He served through the entire war and died of cancer in 1966.
Despite their usefulness, however, there have still been numerous times when paratroopers were not used in which they could have had a significant impact on the battle. These are four of those battles:
1. The Battle of Bastogne
In December 1944 the Germans launched a massive offensive into the Ardennes forest that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
As the situation deteriorated, Gen. Eisenhower decided to commit his strategic reserves, primarily the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, in an attempt to blunt the German attack. In the ensuing melee, the 82nd helped hold back the Germans at Elsenborn Ridge while the 101st became encircled holding Bastogne.
The effort to relieve the 101st fell to Patton’s Third Army to drive through the Germans and reach Bastogne.
However, Eisenhower had one remaining airborne division in reserve in England.
On Dec. 23, the same day Pathfinders landed in Bastogne to guide in supply drops, the 17th Airborne Division flew to France in order to join Third Army in its counter-offensive.
A more decisive move would have been to have the paratroopers of the 17th jump into the perimeter of Bastogne in order to shore up the lines and bring much needed relief to the beleaguered paratroopers of the 101st. This tactic had been used to great effect during Operation Avalanche in Sicily in which 82nd paratroopers reinforced the Allied beachhead at Salerno.
This would have then allowed the defenders to affect a breakout towards friendly lines or to go on an offensive of their own to drive the Germans back and break the siege.
2. The Landing at Inchon
On Sept. 15, 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces as part of Operation Chromite assaulted the beaches and harbor of Inchon — then well behind enemy lines.
In a coordinated effort with the forces encircled at Pusan, the United Nations forces delivered a striking blow against the North Koreans driving them back towards the 38th Parallel and recapturing Seoul.
The attack was a textbook amphibious assault comparable to those undertaken in Europe during World War II in which paratroopers spearheaded an assault followed by seaborne infantry. However, MacArthur had been in command in the Pacific and thus had utilized airborne forces much differently. His assault plan did not include the use of paratroopers.
Though only the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team was available, they could have been put to good use.
Their first order of business could have been the seizure of Kimpo Airfield, a task not completed until Sept. 18 by a battalion of Marines. The early capture of the airfield would have allowed American fighters a forward base sooner and would have allowed follow-on forces to be flown in.
Other elements of the 187th could have also been used to cut off the forces retreating from Pusan. Though the UN was able to eliminate nearly half of the 70,000 North Koreans in the South, the other half was able to regroup in North Korea.
Had paratroopers been employed they could have potentially stopped more — if not all — from reaching North Korea, leaving the communists with virtually no military.
3. The Siege of Khe Sanh
Just before the launch of the Tet Offensive in January 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked and laid siege to the Khe Sanh Combat Base.
Though they held their positions in the hills around the base and the base itself, they were soon cut off from ground support and resupply when Route 9 was closed. The Marines in and around the combat base — mostly the 26th Marine Regiment as well as 1st Battalion, 9th Marines — held out against the North Vietnamese for 11 weeks before finally being relieved by elements of the 1st Cavalry Division as part of Operation Pegasus.
However, the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade was alerted and deployed to Vietnam in early February 1968 in order to shore up defenses against the Tet Offensive.
The brigade could have instead been dropped into the Khe Sanh Combat Base in order to strengthen the defenses there and improve the offensive capabilities of the defenders. The paratroopers could have been used to seek out the NVA artillery that continually pounded the base and silenced it. This would also have freed up other units that were instead used to break the siege.
Furthermore, the paratroopers would have brought with them valuable assets such as artillery, engineers, and intelligence that would have improved the fighting ability of the defenders.
4. Operation Iraqi Freedom
Although there was one large and several smaller airborne operations during the invasion of Iraq the role of paratroopers in the initial assault should have been much greater. Another operation, a likely jump by the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Ranger Battalion onto Saddam International Airport, was scrapped after an overzealous journalist revealed the plan on public television.
However, there were many other targets of opportunity and uses for the available paratroopers. Much like the Rangers’ seizure of H-1 Airbase in Western Iraq, the paratroopers of the 2nd Brigade could have opened an airhead just north of Baghdad with an airborne assault of Balad Air Base.
Reminiscent of WWII operations in Europe, they could have cleared the way for the 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division as they made their way toward Baghdad. The seizure of key infrastructure was vital to keep Saddam from repeating his scorched earth retreat from 1991.
This could have been more quickly facilitated if paratroopers had been employed. With air superiority from the beginning, the possibilities for airborne assaults were great though unfortunately under-utilized.
When the paratroopers did enter the fight they proved their mettle when they earned a Presidential Unit Citation for their actions at As Samawah.
These days, it’s a common political debate. “Dreamers,” illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as infant children and grew up with full lives and roots in the U.S., are sometimes completely unaware they were undocumented until later in life. Back in the days of the Second World War, we didn’t call them “Dreamers,” but the phenomenon was the same: People like Silvestre Herrera didn’t know they were in the United States illegally until they received a draft notice from the Army.
Herrera was born in Chihuahua, Mexico to loving parents in 1917, but they succumbed to the worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed millions around the globe the very next year. When he was around one year old, his uncle brought him to the United States and raised him as a farmhand in Texas. Silvestre Herrera grew up believing his uncle was his father and that he was born in El Paso, Texas.
Even when he married an American, had American children, and moved to Arizona, Herrera believed he was living a typical Mexican-American life in the Southwest. It wasn’t until he got his draft notice for the Texas National Guard in 1944 did he find out the truth about his entire life.
“Son, you don’t have to go,” his uncle told him soberly. “They can’t draft you.” The reason for this is because the U.S. Army can’t draft a Mexican citizen. But Herrera wasn’t about to avoid serving in the military and was enthusiastic about giving back to the United States.
“I didn’t want anybody to die in my place,” he later said. “My adopted country had been so nice to me.”
Latinos fighting in American wars is nothing new, even by World War II standards. People of Hispanic descent have fought in every American conflict from the Revolution to the War in Afghanistan. Mexicans raised in the U.S. was also a common occurrence by 1944. People of Mexican descent in the U.S. were twice as likely to have been born and raised in the States than not. Those who served were fiercely dedicated to their adoptive homes and Silvestre Herrera was going to be one of those.
“I am a Mexican-American and we have a tradition,” He once said. “We’re supposed to be men, not sissies.”
The 27-year-old Herrera eventually ended up in the 142nd Infantry Regiment and found himself in the Alsace region of France in March, 1945. Though the war in Europe would be over in a few short months, the fighting on the Western front was as fierce as ever. The 142nd was a critical part of Operation Undertone, a 75-kilometer front designed to push the Nazi back across the Rhine and secure bridgeheads to cross the river.
Herrera’s platoon was just five miles from their objective at the occupied city of Haguenau when they took coordinated machine gun fire – one from a nearby wood and another across a minefield. As the rest of the men in the platoon took cover, Herrera charged one machine gun nest, firing his M1 Garand rifle from the hip and chucking two grenades into the nest. Eight enemy soldiers surrendered to Herrera in that action.
Reenactors recreating the 142nd 36th Infantry Division’s push into Germany in 1945 during the 2018 Camp Mabry Open House in Austin, Texas.
His platoon still found itself pinned down by another machine gun nest, this time protected by a minefield. Knowing full well the grass in front of him was a minefield, Herrera grabbed a two by four, pushing it along in front of him as he crawled across the minefield. Frustrated with his slow progress toward the nest, he tossed it away, stood up, and dashed for the gun emplacement. As he approached, he stepped on two mines, one on each foot. The resulting explosions blew off both of his feet.
He continued forward toward the enemy, running on his knees. The bleeding Mexican-American GI fell to his stomach and laid down rifle fire, keeping the attention of the Nazi machine gun as his platoon flanked the position and knocked it out. Bleeding profusely, Herrera still somehow managed to stay conscious. The Army was able to save Herrera’s knees and were eventually able to fit him with prosthetic feet.
Herrera receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman, 1945.
When he was to be awarded the Medal of Honor for the heroism that cost him his feet, President Truman was unsure if the man, still bed-ridden from his wounds, would be able to be present for the award. Sure enough, when the time came, Herrera was in full uniform as he rolled his wheelchair to the President of the United States.
“He told me he would rather be awarded the Medal of Honor than be president of the United States,” Herrera told the Arizona Republic in 2005. “That made me even more proud.”
Herrera wearing the Medal of Honor and Mexico’s Order of Military Merit.
Just one year after receiving the U.S. military’s highest award for valor in combat, the Mexican government decided to award him Mexico’s Order of Military Merit, its highest award for valor in combat. Herrera is the only soldier ever to wear both. Most importantly, as Arizona’s first World War II Medal of Honor recipient, citizens of Arizona started a campaign to get Silvestre Herrera U.S. citizenship and even raised ,000 to help him purchase his first home.
After the war, Herrera went back to work, prosthetic limbs and all, for much of the rest of his life. According to his surviving relatives, his war injuries never kept him from doing anything physical or raising his family. He died in 2007, sixteen years after his beloved wife, Ramona.
On Dec. 20, 1989, President George H. W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama. The goal was to oust Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and maintain the neutrality of the Panama Canal while protecting American citizens there. Some 27,000 U.S. troops toppled Noriega’s regime in just over a month and they started it – just like the U.S. planned.
Some people would swear that a small Central American dictatorship with a patronage-based military starting a war with a world superpower is a terrible idea. Those people would be correct, especially considering the superpower already controlled a huge chunk of the country, and staged military units from inside that zone of control.
Until 1979, it was known as the Panama Canal Zone. By 1989, that area was full of U.S. military personnel.
Just a sliver. No big deal.
At the time, the United States still controlled the canal. The terms of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty stated that Panama would gain full control of the canal on Dec. 31, 1999. But even after the canal was given to Panama, the U.S. retained the right to defend the canal to keep it a neutral lane for all ships of all countries. So, the United States already had 12,000 combat-ready forces in the country before the invasion even began.
Still, the United States worked to provoke the Panamanians into committing overtly hostile acts toward U.S. troops. The Americans gave money to the campaign of Guillermo Endara, a politician in direct opposition to Noriega’s regime. When Endara won the national election over Noriega’s chosen candidate, the dictator ruled the vote invalid and then declared himself the sole ruler of Panama.
Drug and human trafficker-in-chief, Manuel Noriega.
Alarmed at Noriega’s shocking display of power, the U.S. military began stepping up its provocation efforts, staging military exercises in former Canal Zone areas, driving through Panamanian territory, and challenging the Panamanian Defense Forces to stop them from moving as they pleased. The Bush Administration also expanded sanctions on Panama and even funded a coup attempt against Noriega.
On Dec. 15, 1989, Noriega even declared war on the United States — but even that didn’t precipitate the invasion. The next day, four military officers were stopped by the Panamanian military on their way to dinner at the Marriott in downtown Panama City. The four officers were driving in a private vehicle when they hit a roadblock and were suddenly surrounded by PDF troops. The Panamanians fired at the vehicle, hitting Marine Capt. Richard E. Hadded in the foot and wounding Marine 1st Lt. Robert Paz, who was rushed to the hospital, where he died of his wounds.
Two Americans, a Naval officer and his wife, witnessed the event. They were detained and beaten by the PDF. That’s when President Bush called down the thunder.
Cue the Van Halen song.
The Panamanian Defense Forces got hit hard. In the middle of the night, tens of thousands of American troops using mechanized infantry, Special Forces, and even airborne assaults, made a move to cripple the Panamanians and capture Noriega. It was the largest combat operation since the Vietnam War, an invasion of an area the size of South Carolina.
By one in the morning on Dec. 20, 1989, U.S. troops installed Endara as Panama’s new President. Meanwhile, Army helicopter gunships and USAF F-117 Nighthawks were hitting targets around the country and the U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and U.S. Marines hit the ground in full force. They first captured special military targets, like the PDF’s La Comandancia and the Bridge of the Americas over the canal itself. SEALs destroyed Noriega’s personal boat and jet as the dictator took refuge inside Vatican City’s diplomatic mission in the capital.
He would not be there long.
Netflix, here’s your next season of Narcos.
Noriega hid under the protection of the Holy See as the United State military cleaned up the remnants of the Panamanian Defense Forces. Meanwhile, the Americans blasted rock and heavy metal music at the mission in an attempt to force Noriega to leave the building and face justice.
It has been 75 years since upward of 150,000 Allied troops began storming the beaches of Normandy by air, land, and sea. As the June 6 anniversary of the largest amphibious assault in military history approaches, journalist Sarah Rose illuminated several less widely known combat heroes who fought for the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe in Operation Overlord: Andrée Borrel, Lise de Baissac, and Odette Sansom. They are among the 39 female agents who served in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secret World War II intelligence agency created in 1940 to “set Europe ablaze.”
“Women are the hidden figures of D-Day,” says Rose, who started researching the history of women in combat and was surprised to learn that their roles dated back to World War II. “People tend to think women were ‘just’ secretarial couriers and messengers. No, there were female special forces agents on the ground and working to keep the Allies from being blown back into the water. They did what men did. They led men.”
In her new book, D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, Rose chronicles three of these agents’ contributions to the Allied victory in Normandy and the liberation of Western Europe.
1. Andrée Borrel, the first female combat paratrooper, fought for the liberation of France until Nazis executed her a month after D-Day.
Born to a working-class family on the outskirts of Paris after World War I, Borrel left school at 14. She had a job at a Paris bakery counter when World War II broke out.
The German military defeated France in June 1940, but many French citizens took up arms in a resistance to Adolf Hitler and his troops.
(German Federal Archive)
Once the war began, Borrel left Paris and took a crash course in nursing with the Red Cross.
After a stint treating people wounded by the German Army, she joined a group of French Resistance operatives organizing and operating one of the country’s largest underground escape networks, the Pat O’Leary line. She aided at least 65 Allied evaders (mainly British Royal Air Force airmen shot down over enemy territory) on their journeys out of France to Spain through the Pyrenees.
When she herself got ratted out, she escaped to Lisbon, Portugal. She then moved to London, eager to continue fighting for the liberation of France. In the spring of 1942, the SOE recruited her. She was trained not only to jump behind enemy lines, but also to spy on, sabotage, and kill Axis troops occupying her home country.
Borrel parachuted into France in September of 1942, becoming the first female combat agent to do so. She worked as a courier for the SOE network Physician (nicknamed “Prosper”), which raised bands of Resistance members in the north to carry out guerilla attacks against Nazi troops. Moving between Paris and the countryside, she coordinated aerial supply drops and recruited, armed, and trained Resistance members.
She rose to second in command of the network’s Paris circuit, which was also funneling enemy intelligence back to the Allies in London. She was in the SOE’s first training class for female agents, where she learned skills from hand-to-hand combat to Morse code. When asked, “How might you kill a Nazi using what you have on you?” she is said to have responded: “I would jam a pencil through his brain. And he’d deserve it.”
Her commanding officer described her as “the best of us all.”
Borrel was sent to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in July 1944, a month after D-Day.
The Nazis arrested Borrel in 1943 and sent her to a concentration camp.
Nazis, allegedly leveraging intelligence from a double agent, arrested Borrel and fellow Physician leaders in June 1943. After being interrogated and imprisoned around Paris, she was transferred to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in July 1944 with three other female SOE agents and executed a month after D-Day.
Even from prison, she is said to have continued fighting by inserting coded messages about her captors in several letters to her sister. She was 24.
Honors: Croix de Guerre, Medal of the Resistance, the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct
2. Lise de Baissac parachuted into France twice and became the No. 2 commander of a French Resistance group fighting Nazis during the Battle of Normandy.
Andrée Borrel was the first female SOE agent to parachute into France during World War II, but her jumping partner, 37-year-old Lise de Baissac, was right behind her. The daughter of a wealthy family in British-ruled Mauritius, de Baissac was in France when Hitler’s troops moved into Paris in 1940. She fled to the south and then to London. When the SOE started recruiting multilingual women as agents, she joined the fight.
After parachuting into Central France with Borrel, de Baissac set up an Allied safe house for agents in the town of Poitiers in western France, selecting an apartment near Gestapo headquarters — a hiding-in-plain-sight strategy she felt would arouse less suspicion.
She bicycled around occupied territory as a liaison among different underground networks, often riding 60-70 kilometers a day and carrying contraband. On one occasion, a Nazi stopped her and her clandestine radio operator, patting them down. The officer searched them for guns, which they didn’t have, so he let them go. She’d later report that a radio crystal fell out of her skirt as she was leaving but that she leaned over, grabbed the crystal off the ground, and pedaled on.
In August of 1943, when her network in Poitiers was blown, the SOE airlifted her back to England by Lysander aircraft. She trained new female SOE recruits in Scotland. In April of 1944, after recovering from a broken leg, she jumped back into occupied France. She made her way to Normandy, joining her brother, fellow SOE agent Claude de Baissac, in leading a network of Resistance fighters in Normandy. They carried out attacks to weaken Nazi communication and transporation circuits, strategically cutting phone lines and blowing up roads, railways, and bridges to hinder the movement of German reinforcements Hitler was ordering to the beaches.
Sherman tanks of British 30th Corps passing through Bayeux, France.
(Imperial War Museum)
De Baissac raced out of Paris to assist the allies when she learned D-Day was imminent.
On June 5, 1944, de Baissac was in Paris recruiting when she learned D-Day was imminent. She biked for three days, speeding through Nazi formations, sleeping in ditches, and reaching her brother and their Resistance circuit headquarters in Normandy.
As the bloody Normandy campaign raged and the Allies struggled to penetrate the Axis front, the de Baissacs continued leading espionage and sabotage operations. They gathered intelligence on enemy positions and transmitted messages back to England, helping lay the groundwork for Operation Cobra, the Allied breakout in which U.S. Army forces came out of the peninsula and pierced Hitler’s front line seven weeks after D-Day.
After the war, she worked for the BBC.
Honors: MBE, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur Croix de Guerre avec Palme
Aliases: Lise 1912-1995
(Imperial War Museum)
3. Odette Sansom blew up Nazi train lines and, upon being arrested and tortured, told Gestapo officers: “I have nothing to say.”
Odette Sansom was a 28-year-old homemaker in Somerset, England when she answered the British War Office’s call for images of the French coastline, offering photographs she had from her childhood. Born in France as “Odette Brailly” in 1912, she had lost her father in the final months of the World War I. With World War II raging and her English husband already away fighting in the British Army, she didn’t take lightly the decision to leave her three young daughters. But with Hitler already occupying her old home and threatening her new one, she felt compelled to join the fight.
She was tough, determined, and persistent. When a concussion during parachute training left her unable to jump into France, she docked in Gibraltar on a gunrunner disguised as a sardine fishing boat, only to arrive in France’s “free” zone the same week in November 1942 that Hitler’s forces began occupying the region. So began several months working as a courier in SOE agent Capt. Peter Churchill’s network, Spindle. Churchill relied heavily on her to set up clandestine radio networks, coordinate parachute drops, and arm Resistance fighters in the Rhône Alps in preparation for D-Day.
She and Churchill fell in love and continued working together mobilizing Resistance members in southeast France until April 1943, when the Gestapo arrested them. Knowing that they were at risk of being executed as spies, she convinced their captors that her commanding officer was a relative of UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and that she was his wife and only in France at her urging. Peter Churchill was not, in fact, related to Britain’s prime minister, but Sansom figured that if she could trick the Germans into thinking they were VIPs, there would be incentive to keep them alive.
(Imperial War Museum)
Sansom emerged from the largest, most lethal women’s concentration camp in history with evidence used to convict its leaders of war crimes.
While Sansom was imprisoned around France and then at Ravensbrück concentration camp, enduring solitary confinement and somewhere between 10-14 torture sessions – she survived.
By the time Ravensbrück was evacuated in the spring of 1945, Sansom’s back was broken, and she had been starved and beaten, with her toenails pulled out and her body burned in attempts to get her to reveal information about her fellow agents. She is said to have revealed nothing.
In the years after the war, Sansom’s testimony was later to convict Ravensbrück camp commandant Fritz Suhren, as well as other SS officers, of war crimes. Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945 came less than a year after the sweeping invasions that began the Battle of Normandy, now memorialized as “D-Day.”
Honors: George Cross, Member of the Order of the British Empire, Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Some might scoff at the idea of a Confederate Army officer being counted in U.S. military history, but Sally Tompkins is one worth noting. Not only was she a commissioned female officer in a world of men, Capt. Sally Tompkins’ hospital had the lowest death rate of any hospital on either side of the war.
The Confederate Army was staffed and run by officers who had earned their ranks through the same means as U.S. government Army officers, the United States Military Academy at West Point. Their judgment can be said to be markedly similar – and in some cases much better – than their Union Army counterparts. After all, the North suffered a series of stunning defeats at the hands of these generals early on in the war.
So to say that Sally Tompkins was appointed by officers whose judgment would probably have been accepted in the United States Army is a point worth making. She first came to run a hospital out of the home of Richmond, Va. Judge John Robertson while just 27 years old. Soon after, Confederate President Jefferson Davis mandated that all Confederate military hospitals be run by Confederate military officers. Miss Tompkins was suddenly Capt. Tompkins, CSA.
But Tompkins was the only officer that would refuse to be paid for her work.
The Robertson Hospital, Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1861.
She was the daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran and thus appreciated the sacrifices made by men on the battlefields. As a native Virginian, she swore loyalty to her native state, and when the time came for her to help the cause, she picked up the slack where she could. That time just happened to come right after the First Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Va. Richmond was quickly overloaded with dying and wounded soldiers. Civilians were asked to open their homes to those men, and that’s how she started overseeing the Robertson home.
Throughout the war, Capt. Tompkins and her hospital served some 1,300 wounded troops, losing only 73 of them. Tompkins kept a register of each patient’s name, company, commanding officer, regiment, infliction, and discharge information for everyone at the hospital throughout the war. Tompkins’ mortality rate was the lowest on either side of the war, losing only 73 of those 1,300 – just five percent.
For this achievement, she became known as “The Angel of the Confederacy.”
Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. For retired commander Jack Schwartz, that seems to be the case.
The 22-year navy Veteran spent 1,367 days in captivity as a prisoner of war during World War II. He turned 103 years old April 28, 2018.
For Schwartz, it all started just three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 10, 1941, he was a navy lieutenant junior grade stationed in Guam as a civil engineer responsible for the water supply, roads, the breakwater and some construction.
“We only had 100 marines on the island – about 400 of us total, to include those who worked at the naval hospital,” Schwartz said. “And there were about 4 or 5,000 Japanese soldiers. They sank one of our ships, a mine sweeper, and nine sailors were killed.”
“We didn’t put up much of a fight.”
Schwartz said he was held by the Japanese there in Guam for about 30 days.
“There was plenty of food on Guam, but they deliberately starved us to make us weak,” he said.
After 30 days, they were transported by ship – all 400 U.S. POWs to include Schwartz – to Shikoku Island in Japan. They stayed there for about eight months, in some old barracks left over from the Japanese war with Russia, before being moved again.
The next place Schwartz was sent to was Kawasaki, between Tokyo and Yokohama. There were already POW camps and prisoners there when Schwartz including U.S. service members captured in the Philippines and from U.S. ships.
More than 300 prisoners were there, but just a few were officers, he said.
“I was the senior U.S. officer there so they put me in charge of the camp,” Schwartz said. “As a prisoner, I had absolutely no authority to do anything, but if anything went wrong it was my fault.”
“Every month or two I got a beating by the Japanese guards – nothing too serious – just to show me they’re in charge.”
After two years, Schwartz said he was sent back to Shikoku Island to the same POW camp he was at previously.
“This was a camp for officers – not just U.S. but English and Dutch. This was where the Japanese would invite the Red Cross to show how nice the conditions were,” Schwartz said. Schwartz would be separated, segregated and moved several times before the Japanese finally surrendered to the Allies on Aug. 14, 1945.
“The day the war with Japan was over, a Japanese officer lined us up outside and told us hostilities have ceased,” Schwartz said. He and the other Japanese officers and guards just walked away.
They made a big sign in white paint on the roof that read POW. After a couple of weeks, a U.S. B-29 bomber spotted us, and a few hours later they started dropping parachutes full of food. “Naturally we all started stuffing ourselves and got sick.”
Upon release – after being held POW for 3.75 years – Schwartz made the decision he would not end his career with the Navy and instead, he continued serve for another 18 years.
The Caltech graduate – who was born in San Francisco but moved to Hollywood with his parents at an early age – would eventually retire from the Navy with honors and distinction and move to Hanford, Calif., in 1962. He then worked for 18 years as Hanford’s Public Works Director and city Engineer before retiring a second time.
Schwartz said he now receives his medical care from the VA Central California Health Care System and is treated very well. “I still remember my first doctor there at the VA, Dr. Ron Naggar. And Dr. Ivance Pugoy is one of my current doctors,” Schwartz said. “You get a feeling they actually care. They make you feel like you are not just a name. You are a person. They do an excellent job for all the POWs,” he said.
Schwartz and several of his fellow POWs from the Central Valley were honored April 9 at VA Central California as part of National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day.