Monday, November 21, 2011

10 Unknown Facts About World War II

We've all studied World War 2 and its far-reaching consequences in school. While almost everything about this epic war is common knowledge (or should be!), there are still several details that have eluded popular culture. Here are 10 things you never knew about World War 2:

Fact One: The Indian Army fought during World War 2. It contributed a volunteer force of 2.5 million to the Allied forces. Indian forces fought in three continents during this war - Asia, Africa and Europe. For their contribution, Indian soldiers were awarded 30 Victorian Crosses, which was the highest military honor in the British Commonwealth.

Fact Two: World War 2 officially started when Germany attacked their own radio station on the Polish border near Gleiwitz. Prisoners from a nearby concentration camp were dressed in Polish army fatigues and then shot by the Germans. The bodies were placed in strategic positions around the radio station to make it look like Polish forces had attacked a German station. To add to this, a Polish-speaking German made a radio broadcast from the station. This gave Germany a pretext to invade Poland on September 1, 1939!

Fact Three: When the war started, there were about 70,000 German and Austrian refugees living in Great Britain. While most of these people were hiding from Nazis, about 11,000 were considered suspicious and unsafe, so their movements were restricted. They also had to report to their local law enforcement authorities every day, and had to obey an 8pm to 8 am curfew!

Fact Four: Since the British Royal Air Force planes did not have Identification Friend or Foe equipment (IFF), a few Spitfires from 74 squadron shot down two Hurricanes from 56 squadron on September 6, 1939. This happened due to a misjudgment on the part of the ground radar operator. Around the same time, an anti-aircraft gun on the ground brought down an airplane belonging to 64 squadron, which resulted in the death of a pilot. Ironically, there were no German aircraft in the area during these "counterattacks." The pilots involved were later exonerated during a court martial!

Fact Five: France and England almost became one country when France was about to be invaded. In order to keep the French army fighting, Winston Churchill and General Charles de Gaulle proposed the idea of uniting the two nations to French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. While the Prime Minister was thrilled at the prospect, his cabinet discarded the idea. Reynaud then resigned, and new premier Marshal Pétain agreed to an armistice with Germany. Pétain believed that Germany was going to defeat Britain soon after!

Fact Six: Josef Jakobs, a German spy who arrived in England after a parachute jump, became the last man to be executed in the Tower of London on August 14, 1941. A firing squad of eight Scots Guards carried out the execution by placing a small target patch over his heart and then firing away in unison. Jakobs was buried in an unmarked grave in London.

Fact Seven: In the aftermath of World War 2, US President Harry Truman sanctioned Operation Paperclip. As per this operation, various intelligence units were deployed in Germany to scout and recruit scientists from the country. This included rocket scientists, electronics experts and even intelligence experts. However, the directive clearly stated that these scientists were to be recruited only if they had no connection with the former Nazi administration. As expected, all the high-value targets sought by the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) has been intimately involved with the Nazi Party and administration, and so new identities and employment histories were created for valuable scientists. Their pasts now bleached clean, they were resettled in the USA and passed on their scientific knowledge and know-how to the mighty American military-industrial complex.

Fact Eight: Since BBC radio was listened to across Europe, it was often used to send secret messages to people caught up in Nazi-occupied areas. These covert messages were masked in messages that were aired before specific programs. For example, a message announcing the impending D-Day invasion read "The long sobs of the violins of Autumn," whereas "Soothes my heart with a monotonous languor" called for all French resistance groups to take up arms and fight.

Fact Nine: The Royal Air Force and the Special Air Service planned and executed Operation Titanic to aid the Normandy landings. As per the plan, 500 dummy parachutists were dropped over a larger area of France than was covered by the Normandy Landings. This was meant to lure the German forces away from the actual site of the landings. These were temporary decoys, and they served their purpose of distracting the Germans.

Fact Ten: British forces teamed up with the makers of the popular board game Monopoly to include small metal tools, cash, a compass, and a map that were hidden in secret compartments under the playing board. Since humanitarian groups were allowed to provide prisoners of war with bare essentials, and even board games, this became a popular method of sneaking in valuable information and directions to prisoners of war (POWs). Before heading for missions behind enemy lines, British soldiers were told to look out for specially marked editions of the Monopoly game that would help them escape if captured. The ploy worked, and the board game actually helped free POWs!

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