World War II

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Brave: Eileen ‘Didi Nearne operated as an undercover agent called ‘Rose’ in Occupied France and was caught and tortured by the Nazis.

Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne

The Spy Who Took Her Secret With Her To The Grave—Almost

Eileen Nearne — known as Didi — was, in fact, one of the bravest secret agents of World War II. When caught, she showed exceptional courage, withstanding torture and incarceration in concentration camps. Didi was a modest woman who seldom spoke about her wartime exploits. Her latter years were solitary and reclusive. Keeping quiet was one of Nearne’s great strengths, and she saved many lives (including her own) through silence, bluff and determination in the face of what must have seemed a hopeless situation. Buried deep in Eileen Nearne’s secret World War II file, released by the National Archives, is the secrecy agreement she signed on Sept. 4, 1942. It was a commitment she honoured until her death.

The death of an eccentric recluse is rarely an event to be given more than a few lines in a local newspaper. But when, in September 2010, police were called to a tiny, cluttered flat in Torquay and discovered the body of local ‘cat lady’ Eileen Nearne, they also found a small bundle of possessions that told an amazing story.

It transpired that the eccentric old lady who fed stray cats had once been one of the most successful agents of Special Operations Executive (SOE), as had her sister, Jacqueline, who had died many years before.

After Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne died in 2 September 2010 (date body found) a frail 89-year-old alone in a flat in the British seaside town of Torquay, Eileen Nearne, her body undiscovered for several days, was listed by local officials as a candidate for what is known in Britain as a council burial, or what in the past was called a pauper’s grave.

But after the police looked through her possessions, including a Croix de Guerre medal awarded to her by the French government after World War II, the obscurity Ms. Nearne had cultivated for decades began to slip away.

Known to her neighbours as an insistently private woman who loved cats and revealed almost nothing about her past, she has emerged as a heroine in the tortured story of Nazi-occupied France, one of the secret agents who helped prepare the French resistance for the D-Day landings in June 1944.

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Italian Premier Benito Mussolini leaving for Tripoli, 13th May 1926. His nose is bandaged after an assassination attempt on 26th April by Violet Gibson, who shot him with a revolver at close range. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

Four people tried to assassinate Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Only one person ever came close – her name was Violet Gibson and she was Irish. Violet spent the rest of her life in mental institutions, forgotten by society and by history.

At 10.58am on Wednesday, April 7, 1926, Benito Mussolini paused to salute an ecstatic crowd in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. As a group of students broke into song, he cocked his head in their direction. At that moment, a slight, bespectacled, shabby woman, standing less than a foot away, took aim and shot him at point-blank range. The first bullet grazed Il Duce’s nose, releasing a spectacular torrent of blood; the second jammed in the pistol chamber.

Violet Gibson shot two people at point-blank range, herself and Benito Mussolini. Both survived. After the first (attempted-suicidal) shooting, Violet, alive because the bullet had bounced off a rib, lived quietly in a convent in Rome, doing jigsaws with her Irish maid, until the day she set off for the Capitol with a gun in her pocket. After the second shooting Mussolini, alive because he turned his head just as Violet fired, set out for a triumphal visit to Libya with a sticking plaster on his nose. Meanwhile Violet was half-lynched, then dragged, badly battered, into a room containing the colossal marble foot of Emperor Constantine, there to be revived with brandy before being dispatched to prison. It was the end of her life in the world.

When Violet Gibson shot Benito Mussolini, the bullet missed Mussolini’s bald head but removed part of his nose, everyone except her thought it was a crazy thing to do. The ensuing debate was to determine whether she was certifiably crazy or not. Death and illness were themes of her life and perhaps fertilised the psychological soil where a religious seed had been planted.

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The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers. The heroic efforts of three brothers who helped save more than 1,200 people while living in the forest during World War II. Florida Holocaust Museum.

Courage and Compassion

The Bielski Brothers

The story of three men who defied the Nazis saved hundreds of Jews and built a village in the forest

In 1941, as the Jews of Eastern Europe were being massacred by the thousands, the Bielski brothers took refuge in a dense Polish forest filled with wolves, poisonous snakes, swamps and frigid temperatures during the winter. It was there they staged their revenge for the deaths of their parents, family members and friends.

Throughout the War, the Bielski brothers carried out a continuous guerrilla war against the Nazis. They often used captured German weapons gained from ambushed German patrols. They also derailed troop trains and blew up bridges and electricity stations.

Tuvia, Asael, Zus, and Aron Bielski were four of 12 children born to a miller and his wife in the rural village of Stankevich, near Novogrudok. The only Jews in a small community, they had connections within and outside of the Jewish community and quickly learned how to look after themselves. Before long, the older brothers developed a fearsome reputation.

After witnessing the brutal execution of their parents by Nazi soldiers, the three Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Asael and Zus, fled into the nearby dense forest, where they joined relatives and friends, scrounged for food and weapons and inflicted whatever damage they could on German troops.

It was a grim scene that would, of course, be repeated endlessly throughout the war. Instead of running or capitulating or giving in to despair, these brothers — Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski — did something else entirely. They fought back, waging a guerrilla war of wits and cunning against both the Nazis and the pro-Nazi sympathisers. Along the way, they saved well over a thousand Jewish lives.

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Unmistakably an old-school cavalryman, Lucian K. Truscott Jr.—here in France in 1944, —led troops in Sicily, Italy, and France with aggressive confidence and a relentless will to win. (George Silk/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.)

The General who Apologised to the Dead Soldiers

Lucian King Truscott, Jr., was born January 9, 1895, in Chatfield, Texas. He enlisted in the Army upon America’s entry into World War I. He was selected for officer training and was commissioned in the cavalry in 1917. He served in a variety of cavalry assignments during the interwar period and served as an instructor at both the Cavalry School and the Command and General Staff School.

Early in World War II, he joined Lord Mountbatten’s combined staff where he developed the Ranger units for special operations. His experience began with learning Commando tactics and then training American officers and men in commando operations.  He led his Rangers in combat at Dieppe and in Morocco and then began his ascent through the various levels of major combat command… Truscott was a reliable, aggressive, and successful leader.

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Donald Stratton was stationed on the USS Arizona when a million pounds of explosives detonated beneath his battle station fifteen minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Donald Stratton was stationed on the USS Arizona when a million pounds of explosives detonated beneath his battle station fifteen minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbour.

“Remember Pearl Harbour”

“Arizona, I remember you”

Donald Stratton could never shake the memory of it all – the deafening explosions, searing heat, machine gun blasts and heart-wrenching screams of his friends – from his head.

“Never a day goes by for all these many years when I haven’t thought about it,” Stratton said. “I don’t talk about it too much, but when December rolls around I do. It’s important the American people don’t forget.”

Donald Stratton, 93, served four years in the United States Navy and was on board the USS Arizona December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The adventure of being at sea had been a lifelong dream for Stratton, so when he turned 18, he enlisted in the Navy. One year later he was assigned for duty on the USS Arizona. The hulk of the ship still rests in Pearl Harbor as a memorial to the nearly 2,500 Americans killed that day.

That any sailors survived the attack on the Arizona is a miracle, Stratton says.

“A million pounds of ammunition exploded,” he said. “The fireball went 600 or 800 feet in the air and just engulfed us.”

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YEARS AGO—Marthe Cohn as a young woman in the 1940s. Photo: Marthe Cohn

YEARS AGO—: Marthe Cohn as a young woman in the 1940s. Photo: Marthe Cohn

Marthe Misses Nothing

The Lady was a Spy

 During World War II, Marthe Hoffnung was a French espionage agent in Nazi Germany, posing as Martha Ulrich, a 25-year-old ‘Fräulein’ whose cover story was that she needed to find her fiancé at the German front

  “You should never accept to be kept under the boot of anybody; you have to fight back.”

Marthe Cohn

Marthe Cohn (nee Hoffnung), was crouching in a forest, dressed in a skirt and jacket, with white socks covering her silk stockings. She took a deep breath and grabbed her suitcase, taking leave of Georges Lemaire, the Swiss intelligence officer who had accompanied her to this spot on the Swiss-German border. Marthe began crawling through the underbrush toward the stretch of road patrolled by two German sentries. She waited until they met midway and reversed direction, so their backs were to her.

This was her cue. She was to pose as Martha Ulrich, a German nurse searching for her fiancé, but she was suddenly paralyzed by fear, overcome by the enormity of her mission, so she just lay there for more than two hours. Then she thought about a captain named Mollat, the French officer who had overseen her previous 14 missions to infiltrate enemy territory, all unsuccessful, and who had doubted her abilities.

She rose, pulling herself up to her full 4-foot-11 height, and walked to the road. “Heil Hitler,” she greeted the sentry coming toward her, presenting her papers. “Go on your way,” he said.

It was April 11, 1945, two days before Marthe’s 25th birthday.

Marthe Cohn was an unlikely World War II spy. At just 4 feet, 11 inches, Cohn was petite with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was also Jewish. Never hesitant to resist an unjust cause, especially during the Nazi reign in World War II, she courageously risked everything and contributed to the Allies’ victory.

With her fair features and flawless German language skills, however, she was able to convince Nazi officers she posed no threat.

“I was now in Germany,” she said.

Cohn had no compass, map, radio or weapons, only clothes without labels and German money and vouchers.

“Everything I needed to know was in my memory,” she said with a smile. “I have a pretty good memory.”

Now 96 years old, Cohn said she feels compelled to travel around the country to share her story with others. “It’s important that people know that Jews fought,” she said. “We were not just waiting to be arrested.”

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Pages from the diary by 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Thomas "Cotton?" Jones, including a portrait of his high school sweetheart, Laura Mae Davis, at right. Before Jones died, he wrote what he called his "last life request" to anyone who might find his diary: "Please give it to Laura Mae Davis, the girl he loved."CREDIT: AP/National WWII Museum

Pages from the diary by 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Thomas “Cotton” Jones, including a portrait of his high school sweetheart, Laura Mae Davis, at right. Before Jones died, he wrote what he called his “last life request” to anyone who might find his diary: “Please give it to Laura Mae Davis, the girl he loved.”CREDIT: AP/National WWII Museum

Woman Finds Diary of Man She Loved In World War II Museum

Corporal Thomas ‘Cotton’ Jones had one ‘last life request’ before he was killed by a Japanese sniper on a South Pacific island in 1944: Please give my diary to Laura Mae Davis, the girl I love…

During 1944, the scale of the fighting in the Pacific – and the length of the casualty lists – grew markedly.

One of the costliest amphibious operations that year was the invasion of Peleliu, a small, but heavily-defended island in the southwestern Pacific. Nearly 10,000 Army troops and Marines were killed or wounded in the battle for Peleliu. Among the dead was Corporal Thomas Paul “Cotton” Jones.

Jones served with the 1st Marine Division. On September 15, 1944, American forces assaulted Peleliu. Jones’ unit came ashore on September 17. As he approached the beach carrying his machine gun, Thomas Jones was shot in the head and killed.

Corporal Thomas “Cotton” Jones served as a marine for the United States military during World War II. Before he was killed by a Japanese sniper in the Central Pacific, he wrote a “last request” to whoever found his diary. He wanted it to be given to Laura Mae Davis, the girl he loved.

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The 47 suitcases seized by police in a private residence at Villeneuve at the Seine Assize Court during the trial of French mass murderer Dr Marcel Petiot. The cases contain clothes which were identified by relatives of some of his victims. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The 47 suitcases seized by police in a private residence at Villeneuve at the Seine Assize Court during the trial of French mass murderer Dr Marcel Petiot. The cases contain clothes which were identified by relatives of some of his victims. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Dangerous Lunatic

The Monster of Rue Le Sueur

Meet the French doctor who promised Jews safe passage from Nazis, only to rob and murder them

To all who knew him, he was the most devoted, benevolent doctor in Nazi-occupied Paris. Dr Marcel Petiot provided free care for the poor and risked his life helping persecuted Jews flee to safety.
Or so everyone thought – until locals in his affluent neighbourhood reported a foul stench from his home and thick black smoke pouring out of his chimney in March 1944.

Nazi-occupied Paris was a terrible place to be in the waning days of World War Two, with Jews, Resistance fighters and ordinary citizens all hoping to escape. Disappearances became so common they often weren’t followed up.

And one man used the lawlessness for his own terrible purposes, killing perhaps as many as 60 people.

Petiot’s criminal career stretched from his teenage years to his mid-life, and ran parallel to a successful military, political, and medical career. He was a real life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The inherent grisliness of murder makes it hard — if not impossible — to describe any murderer as “better” or “worse” than another. Still, Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot was truly superlative in his horror, mainly because of the circumstances and motivations behind his acts: He promised safety and freedom to those leaving Nazi-occupied France, only to strip them of their possessions and lives.

Despite his infamy in France, many elsewhere have never heard his story. As with many serial killers, internal struggle marked much of Pétiot’s early life.

Born on January 17th, 1897, he was the son of a civil servant, and his uncle, Gaston Petiot, was a professor of philosophy at the College of Auxerre. From childhood he showed signs of violence, after he strangled a cat after plunging its legs in boiling water.

However, he showed great intelligence, at 5 years old he was reading like a 10-year-old child. He then was found distributing obscene images when he was eight. Interned at St. Anne for a psychiatric disorder, his mother died when he was 12, he was then subsequently sent to several schools for discipline, but exhibited severe behavioural problems in school and was expelled several times before completing his education.

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On April 19, 1919, Leslie Irvin, made the world’s first free fall parachute descent using a rip cord, rather than using a canister or tether line attached to the aircraft to pull open the parachute.

On April 19, 1919, Leslie Irvin, made the world’s first free fall parachute descent using a rip cord, rather than using a canister or tether line attached to the aircraft to pull open the parachute.

The Caterpillar Club

“Life depends on a silken thread”

” It remains a club without a charter, without membership fees, without meetings. Yet it is the most exclusive in aviation, for there is only one way to join. It is a way that appeals to few…….! “

The Caterpillar Club is an informal association of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. After authentication by the parachute maker, applicants receive a membership certificate and a distinctive lapel pin. The nationality of the person saving their life by parachute and ownership of the aircraft are not factors in determining qualification for membership; anybody who has saved their life by using a parachute after bailing out of a disabled aircraft is eligible. The requirement that the aircraft is disabled naturally excludes parachuting enthusiasts in the normal course of a recreational jump, or those involved in military training jumps.

In 1922, Leslie Leroy Irvin founded the Caterpillar Club. Membership is only open to those whose life has been saved by an Irvin designed or manufactured parachute. The Caterpillar name was chosen for the pure silk from which parachutes (at that time) were made, and also because a caterpillar lowers itself to earth by the silken thread it spins. The Club slogan is “Life depends on a silken thread.” After acceptance into the Caterpillar Club, members receive a certificate of membership, and a Caterpillar pin with the member’s name and rank.

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Dennis and Joan Wheatley 1930's.

Dennis and Joan Wheatley 1930’s.

Dennis Wheatley : Churchill’s Storyteller

Few people are aware that Dennis Wheatley spent the Second World War as a member of Winston Churchill’s Joint Planning Staff, dedicating his talents to the formation of ideas and plausible scenarios to assist the war effort.

Before Ian Fleming there was Dennis Wheatley. A best-selling spy novelist at the outset of World War II, Wheatley became a master of deception for Great Britain, turning pulp fiction fantasies into real-life espionage. This is the amazing true story of one man who applied the plots of his own novels to the battlefield—and changed the course of history.

Dennis Wheatley was born in London in January 1897, the son and grandson of Mayfair wine merchants. From 1908 – 1912 he was a cadet on HMS Worcester, then spent a year in Germany learning about wine making.  In September 1914, at the age of seventeen, he received his commission and later fought at Cambrai, St. Quentin and Passchendaele.

Gassed, he was subsequently invalided from the army and entered the family wine business, and following the death of his father in 1926, became its sole owner. During this period he began to write short stories, a number of which were later published or expanded into full-length novels.  Following the failure of his first marriage, in 1931 he married Joan Younger.

Wheatley’s business was badly affected by the slump of the early thirties and by 1932 he was forced to sell up and came close to bankruptcy.  As a diversion from his financial worries and with the encouragement of his wife, Wheatley set about writing a full-length murder mystery that he called ‘Three Inquisitive People’. His agent’s reader considered the book to be weak, commenting:

“This story shows considerable promise but does not conform to the accepted formula for murder stories. We do not see enough of the murderer, and the construction is poor in that the heroine is not brought in early enough and plays no essential part, and that after the point at which the book should normally be concluded there is a long epilogue tacked on which is unduly loaded with bathos.”

However, this book introduced the characters of the Duc de Richleau and his friends who were to become Wheatley’s most popular inventions.  Whilst ‘Three Inquisitive People’ was in the hands of his agent he set about writing a second book featuring the same characters, ‘The Forbidden Territory’, which was immediately snapped up by Hutchinson. This adventure story won immediate acclaim from both the press and public alike. It was reprinted seven times in as many weeks, was translated into many languages and the film rights were bought by Alfred Hitchcock.

This book was followed by a string of thrillers that, throughout the 1930s, propelled Wheatley into the category of best selling author.  As an avid reader himself, and fanatical collector of modern first editions, he was familiar with the work of authors such as H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, William Hope Hodgson, John Buchan and his particular favourite Alexandre Dumas, and was influenced in varying degrees by each.  His work in the thirties seemed to be perfectly in tune with the spirit of the age, enforcing the virtues of imperialism in which he totally believed, and countering the rising threat of communism.

In 1939 he became the editor of the ‘Personality Pages’ of the Sunday Graphic and a volunteer speaker on behalf of the war effort. In the early days of the war, despite his best efforts, Wheatley was unable to find suitable war-work and so continued to write his novels, being one of the first writers to use the real life events of the day as the backdrop to his stories.

Then in May 1940, following a chance conversation between his wife and her passenger while she was a driver for MI5, Wheatley was commissioned to write a series of papers on various strategic aspects of the War. These ‘War Papers’ were read by the King and the highest levels of the General Staff, and as a result in December 1941 he was re-commissioned, becoming the only civilian to be directly recruited onto the Joint Planning Staff. With the final rank of Wing Commander, for the rest of the War, Wheatley worked in Churchill’s basement fortress as one of the country’s small handful of ‘Deception Planners’ who were charged with developing ways to deceive the enemy of the Allies real strategic intentions. Their top-secret operations, which included the plans to deceive the enemy about the true site of the Normandy landings, were highly successful and saved countless lives.

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