4 Crazy Forgotten Side Stories From World War II
Thanks to countless movies, video games, and rambling Facebook posts from distant family members, general knowledge of World War II has been condensed to a few key moments: Dunkirk, D-Day, the Bulge, maybe Jude Law's famous victory at Stalingrad.
But the thing about getting the entire world involved in a war is that some very weird stories unfold at the fringes ...
A Fake Diplomat Gave Out Very Real Papers To Refugees
We've told you about diplomats like Chiune Sugihara, who gave life-saving visas to Jews despite explicit instructions not to. But to perform heroic acts of diplomacy, you would have to be, well, a diplomat, right? Not exactly.
Giorgio Perlasca was a staunch Italian fascist until Mussolini passed anti-Semitic racial laws and aligned himself with Hitler, because there's fascism and then there's, like, fascism, you know? Perlasca, disillusioned by the treatment of his Jewish friends, spent the war acquiring supplies for Italy's eastern front, and in 1943 he was working in Budapest when Italy surrendered and broke with the Axis. While many of his colleagues chose to return to the sad little puppet state Hitler gave Mussolini, Perlasca swore fealty to the Italian throne, prompting Nazi-aligned Hungary to throw him in jail.
His prison was a relatively cushy castle reserved for VIPs, but after a few months, he got his hands on a medical travel pass and applied for asylum at the Spanish Embassy. Spain was also fascist, as was the style at the time, but had kept out of the war and was begrudgingly accepting Jewish refugees based on the Allied policy of pointing at Hitler's mounting military defeats and asking what landmarks visitors to Madrid should check out.
Perlasca had fought for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, so the embassy welcomed him with open arms. Rather than sit around, Perlasca assumed a fake identity and began working with Spanish diplomat Angel Sanz Briz to give Hungarian Jews certificates of protection. These papers guaranteed their holders access to Spanish safe houses until they could be smuggled out of the country, and Briz himself saved about 5,000 Jews.
This continued until 1944 when Hitler, never great at managing his priorities, decided that his ally wasn't being genocidal enough and ordered a German occupation of Hungary. Briz and his staff were forced to flee to Switzerland, and Hungary's new rulers declared that with diplomatic relations severed, so they could do whatever they wanted with the Jews that had been under Spain's protection. And that's where Perlasca stepped in.
Ignoring his own invitation to Switzerland, Perlasca declared that Briz had totes left him in charge of the Spanish Embassy, and anyone who questioned that fact or his Italian accent was probably a colossal idiot. Wielding the abandoned Spanish seal and his own huge balls, Perlasca continued to issue protective papers while monitoring the safehouses for any sign of Nazi duplicity. At one point, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, busy saving lives himself, witnessed Perlasca talk two boys off a train bound for Auschwitz by getting in the face of Adolf goddamn Eichmann.
Perlasca maintained his fake diplomatic authority until Soviet troops arrived, then returned home to his wife. She didn't believe his claimed exploits, so he stopped talking about them, settling down to a quiet life until a group of grateful Hungarian Jews tracked him down four decades later. His rogue diplomacy is believed to have saved another 5,000 lives, although sadly, there's no record of Mrs. Perlasca's reaction to that calculation.
A Civilian Anthropologist Led A Rampaging Guerrilla Army
For a war with "World" in its title, we mostly tend to think about Europe, the Pacific, and of course, the infamous Australian Front. One of the forgotten theaters was the CBI (China, Burma, India, and a couple other countries that apparently would've ruined the acronym), where troops had to deal with monsoons, malaria, and being a low budget priority. Have you ever have an underfunded project at your job? Now imagine that project was to stay alive while fighting the Japanese army.
But while Allied soldiers tried to adjust to life on the other side of the world, Ursula Graham Bower was already experienced. In 1937, the 23-year-old Englishwoman went to visit her brother in India. Her mother encouraged her to pick up a good husband while she was there, but she instead became fascinated by the indigenous Naga culture. By 1939 she was living in remote Naga villages as an amateur anthropologist, winning their trust with modern medicine, the fact that she wasn't a government official and, conveniently, some Naga deciding that she was the reincarnation of a beloved Naga prophet.
The Naga had a complicated relationship with the British. In a classic frenemies situation, sometimes they were happy to receive traders and missionaries, and sometimes they killed outsiders in a ritualized headhunting ceremony. So while the British ostensibly considered the Naga to be under their jurisdiction, they mostly left them alone. Then, in 1942, Japan swept through Burma and threatened to push into India, starting with the mountainous Naga border territory.
The British turned to Bower, asking her to use her Naga connections to monitor Japanese troop movement and rescue downed Allied pilots. Bower went further and mustered a 150 man strong guerrilla force who liked the imperialists who mostly ignored them more than the imperialists pressing the Naga into brutal forced labor. Armed primarily with old muskets, they mainly aided refugees escaping Burma, but also harassed Japanese troops to the point where a bounty was placed on the head of a woman with no formal military training leading male warriors who typically frowned on women in the war workplace.
In 1944 the Japanese suffered a backbreaking defeat at Kohima, a battle won with the help of Naga intelligence, and retreated. Bower pivoted to teaching Allied troops jungle survival skills and, in doing so, even found the husband her mother had been hoping for, marrying a British officer in a Naga wedding ceremony. After the war, she returned to a more mundane life. However, she did advocate for the Naga after the British rewarded their dedicated wartime service by punting the question of their autonomy to newly independent India, which opted for a campaign of terrifying oppression instead. Yeah, another reason the CBI is forgotten is that it was a lot more complicated than "The good guys won, yay!"
Only One Nazi Prisoner Managed An Epic Escape From North America (And It Was Probably A Good Thing)
The war's countless prisoners produced countless escape attempts, including some great escapes portrayed in classic movies like The Escape With Decidedly Mixed Results. But the record for longest escape probably belongs to Franz von Werra, who was shot down during the Battle of Britain. He tried and failed to escape from the first jail he was held in, and then after being transferred for interrogation, managed to slip out and go on the lam for five days. Upon being recaptured, he was transferred again, and after he tunneled out of his new digs, he concocted a story about being a Dutch pilot with a scheduled training flight. The ruse was so effective that he bluffed policemen, scored transportation to an airbase, and was even able to seat himself in a cockpit before the story finally fell apart.
Britain then decided they were sick of von Werra and made him Canada's problem, but when the train taking him to a prison camp came close to the American border, his fellow prisoners helped him hop out a window. He muddled some 30 miles through the cold winter night to the St. Lawrence River, stole a boat, and managed to make it to Ogdensburg, New York, instead of freezing to death.
Von Werra partied his way to minor New York celebrity while neutral America decided what to do with him. When it looked like he would be sent back to Canada, the German consulate threw him on a train to Texas and told him to sneak into Mexico. From there, he made it to Brazil, where more German contacts sent him to Barcelona, Rome, and finally, a hero's welcome back in Germany.
There is a reason to celebrate this successful Nazi, a sentence I will ask you to not quote out of context. Von Werra was invited to tour prison camps and see how German interrogators were stacking up to their British counterparts, and he was unimpressed. Rough treatment, threats of torture, and weird drug concoctions were useless at extracting information compared to the nefarious Allied method he experienced, wherein ruthless British officers sat down for a nice lunchtime chat with prisoners.
Shockingly, Nazi propaganda had backfired: German pilots were fed tales of heinous British brutality, only to discover friendly folk who gave them magazines and beer while asking them seemingly innocuous questions about their military service. And so, while it was generally still a very bad time to be a foreigner in Germany, the treatment of captured Allied airmen improved so much that some German interrogators found themselves suspected by the Gestapo of being double agents.
Of course, von Werra's intentions weren't entirely humane, and he soon rejoined the war effort. He scored 13 more aerial kills, but six months after returning to Germany, he died when his engine failed, possibly because the universe has a fundamental contempt for Nazis. Although von Werra did get a 1957 British movie made about his adventure because, at that point, Britain could have a laugh about how the whole war thing had turned out.
The Nazis Suffered Their Most Crushing Defeat Just Weeks After D-Day
Everyone knows D-Day. From generations of movies and video games to grumpy memes comparing its participants to the kids these days, it's one of the most iconic moments of the war. Expert historians can debate its precise importance in the comments, and given that even the Conker's Bad Fur Day parody stresses me out, I'm certainly glad I didn't have to fight in it. But just weeks after the Normandy landings, the Nazis were hit with a far worse blow.
The Eastern Front's ridiculous scale made the west look like everyone was playing with Tinkertoys, and one of the most massive and most brutal struggles in human history came to a head on June 23, 1944, with Operation Bagration. An assault focused on what is now Belarus, the Soviets somehow managed to disguise the intent of about 2.4 million soldiers and convince the Nazis their target was Ukraine until it was far too late to respond.
With the use of massive artillery bombardments, thousands of tanks and planes, and bold new concepts like actually showing a modicum of interest in keeping their soldiers alive, the Soviets smashed through overextended German lines and encircled entire divisions. The Nazis had been so severely fooled that their tanks were outnumbered seven to one, and "only" 700,000 soldiers were on-hand to respond. A month after Bagration began, Germany had suffered its single greatest defeat. A quarter of their eastern manpower had evaporated, supplies and competent officers were suddenly nowhere to be found, and their ability to put up a serious fight was gone.
D-Day was a sideshow by comparison, with an initial force of about 175,000 soldiers facing off against 80,000 Germans. After Bagration, the Soviets paraded 57,000 prisoners through Moscow just to mock Nazi announcements of a planned and orderly retreat. It even helped the post-Normandy advance, as the Nazis had to hastily repurpose troops from France and Italy to stall their inevitable eastern defeat.
Aside from Soviet victories not making for polite conversation in the west, Bagration remains little known because it lacks a single cinematic, easy to grasp moment. There was no one beachhead to seize or city to hold; it was just a general onslaught, the closest real warfare can come to a Zerg rush. But it's a major reason the post-war map looked like it did, so hey, maybe throw it in a Battlefield game sometime.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
Top image: Wikimedia Commons