June 12, 1942 A Night at the Beach

Much has been written about the eight central characters in this story. These individuals have been described by contemporary and subsequent sources alike, as Saboteurs, Nazis and Spies. Certainly to call them such, fed into the political expectations of the day. Yet their country had chosen them for this mission based on unique qualifications, separate and apart from whatever devotion they felt for the fatherland, or the Nazi party. It may be that these guys deserve every evil name that’s been heaped on them. Or maybe they were just eight guys who got caught up between two nations at war. It’s an interesting story. You decide.

The German submarine U-202 commanded by Hans Linder came to the surface on the night of June 12 at Amagansett, New York, near Montauk Point. An inflatable emerged from the hatch and rowed to shore at what is now Atlantic Ave beach, in Long Island. Four figures stepped onto the beach wearing German military uniforms.  If they’d been captured at this point every one of them wanted to be treated as enemy combatants, instead of spies.

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This was “Operation Pastorius”, a mission was to sabotage American economic targets and damage defense production. Targets included hydroelectric plants, train bridges and factories. The four had nearly $175,000 in cash, some good liquor and enough explosives to last them two years or more.

German plans began to unravel as they buried their uniforms and explosives in the sand.  21-year old Coast Guardsman John Cullen was a “sand pounder”.  Armed only with a flashlight and a flare gun, Cullen had the unglamorous duty of patrolling the beaches, looking for suspicious activity.

It was “so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes” Cullen said, when a solitary figure came out of the dunes.  He was George John Davis he said, a fisherman run ashore.  But something seemed wrong and Cullen’s suspicions were heightened, when another figure came out of the darkness.  This one was shouting something in German, when “Davis” spun around and shouted, “You damn fool!  Go back to the others!”

With standing orders to kill anyone who confronted them during the landing, Davis hissed, “Do you have a mother? A father?  Well, I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.”

It was Cullen’s lucky day.  “Davis’” real name was Georg John Dasch.  He was no Nazi. He’d been a waiter and dishwasher before the war, who’d come to the attention of the German High Command because he had lived for a time, in the United States.   “Forget about this, take this money, and go have a good time” he said, handing over a wad of bills.   $260 richer, John Cullen sprinted two miles directly to the Coast guard station.

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Seaman John Cullen, left, received the Legion of Merit from Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker for his service in WW2

Before long the beach was swarming with Coast Guardsmen. A dawn broke it was easy to see something heavy had been dragged, across the sand. Within minutes boxes were found containing Nazi uniforms.

Four days later, U-584 deposited a second team of four at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville. As with the first, this second group had lived and worked in the United States, and were fluent in English.  Two of the eight were US citizens.

Georg Dasch had a secret.  He had no intention of carrying out his mission.  He summoned Ernst Peter Burger to an upper-level hotel room.  Gesturing toward an open window Dasch said  “You and I are going to have a talk, and if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window.”

Pastorius-Plaque

Burger turned out to be a naturalized US citizen who’d spent 17 months in a concentration camp.  He hated the Nazis as much as Dasch. Then and there, the two of them decided to defect.

Dasch tested the waters. Convinced the FBI was infiltrated with Nazi agents, he telephoned the New York field office.  Put on hold with the call transferred several times, Dasch was horrified to have the agent who finally listened to him, quietly hang up the phone.  Had he reached a German mole?  Had the call been traced?

Dasch had no way of knowing, he’d been transferred to the ‘nut desk’.  The FBI thought he was a clown.

Finally, Dasch went to the FBI office in Washington DC, only to be treated like a nut job.  Until he dumped $84,000 cash on Assistant Director D.M. Ladd’s desk, a sum equivalent to about a million dollars, today.  Dasch was interrogated for hours, and happily gave up everything he knew.  Targets, German war production, he spilled it all, even a handkerchief with the names of local contacts, written in invisible ink.  He couldn’t have been a very good spy, though.  He forgot how to reveal the names.

All eight were in custody, within two weeks.

J. Edgar Hoover announced the German plot on June 27, but his version had little resemblance to that of Dasch and Burger.  As with the brief he had given President Roosevelt, Hoover praised the magnificent work of FBI detectives and the Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction which led Assistant Director Ladd to that $84,000.  Dasch and Burger’s role in the investigation was conveniently left out, as was the fact that the money had all but bounced Mr. Ladd off the head.

Neither Dasch nor Burger expected to be thrown in a cell, but agents assured them it was a formality.  Meanwhile, a credulous and adoring media speculated on how Hoover’s FBI had done it all.  Did America have spies inside the Gestapo?  German High Command?  Were they seriously that good?

Attorneys for the defense wanted a civilian trial, but President Roosevelt wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle: “Surely they are as guilty as it is possible to be and it seems to me that the death penalty is almost obligatory”. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the decision “Ex parte Quirin” became and remains precedent to this day, for the way unlawful combatants are tried.  All eight would appear before a military tribunal.

Whether any of the eight were the menace they were made out to be, remains unclear.  German High Command had selected all eight based on past connections with the United States, and ordering them to attack what they may have regarded as their adopted country.  Several were arrested in gambling establishments, others in houses of prostitution.  One had resumed a relationship with an old girlfriend and the pair was planning to marry.  Not the behavior patterns you might expect from “Nazi saboteurs”.

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The trial was held before a closed-door military tribunal in the Department of Justice building in Washington, the first such trial since the Civil War. All eight defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death.  It was only on reading trial transcripts, that Roosevelt learned the rest of the story.  The President commuted Burger’s sentence to life and Dasch’s to 30 years, based on their cooperation with the prosecution. The other six were executed by electric chair on August 8, in alphabetical order.

Bodies of the six men executed are transported by ambulance, under armed guard.

After the war, Burger and Dasch’s trial transcripts were released to the public, over the strenuous objections of J. Edgar Hoover.  In 1948, President Harry S. Truman bowed to political pressure, granting the men executive clemency and deporting them both to the American zone of occupied Germany.  The pair found themselves men without a country hated as spies in America, and traitors in Germany.

The reader may decide, whether Hoover and Roosevelt operated from base and venal political motives, or whether the pair was playing 4-D chess.  Be that as it may, Hitler rebuked Admiral Canaris, and seems to have bought into Hoover’s version of FBI invincibility.  There would be no further missions of this type, save for one in November 1944, when two spies were landed on the coast of Maine to gather information on the Manhattan project.

Georg Dasch campaigned for the rest of his life, to be allowed to return to what he described as his adopted country.  Ernst Burger died in Germany in 1975, Dasch in 1992.  The pardon Hoover promised both men over a half-century earlier, never materialized.

Neither Dasch nor Burger could have dreamed of what they would become, in the popular imagination.

May 4, 1943 Counter Measures

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities.

In the Spanish language, the word “Bobo” translates as “stupid…daft…naive”. The slang form “bubie” describes a dummy. A dunce. The word came into English sometime around 1590 and spelled “booby”, meaning a slow or stupid person.

In a military context, a booby trap is designed to kill or maim the person who activates a trigger. Like the common mess tin at the top of this page, modified to mangle or kill the unsuspecting soldier. During the war in Vietnam, Bamboo pit vipers known as “three step snakes” (because that’s all you get) were tucked into backpacks, bamboo sticks or simply hung by their tails, a living trap for the unwary GI.

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Punji stakes were often smeared with human excrement result in hideous infection for the unsuspecting GI

The soldier who goes to lower that VC flag might pull the halyard rope may hear distant snickering in the jungle…just before the fragmentation grenade goes off. Often, the first of his comrades running to the aid of his now shattered body hits the trip wire, setting off a secondary and far larger explosive.

Not to be outdone, the operation code-named “Project Eldest Son” involved CIA and American Green Berets sabotaging rifle and machine gun rounds, in such a way as to blow off the face the careless Vietcong shooter.

German forces were masters of the booby trap in the waning days of WW1 and WW2. A thin piece of fishing line connected the swing of a door with a hidden grenade, by your feet. A flushing toilet explodes and kills or maims everyone in the building. The wine bottle over in the corner may be perfectly harmless, but the chair you move over to get it, blows you to bits.

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities. Would the “Joe Squaddy” entering the room care if that painting on the wall was askew? Very possibly not but an “officer and a gentleman” may be moved to straighten the thing out at the cost of his hands, or maybe his life.

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Exploding Peas, illustration by Laurence Fish

In the strange and malignant world of Adolf Hitler, the German and British people had much in common.  Are we not all “Anglo-Saxons”?  The two peoples need not make war the man believed, except for their wretched man, Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a true leader of world-historical proportion during the darkest days, of the war.  Taking the man out just might cripple one of Hitler’s most potent adversaries.

In 1943, Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off of this thing, you might wonder in the last nanoseconds of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

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Churchill was known to have a sweet tooth and so it was, that Nazi Germany planned to kill the British Prime Minister. A booby trapped chocolate bar placed in a war cabinet meeting room.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there were times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

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The lives of millions, or perhaps only one.  German saboteurs were discovered operating inside the UK, the information sent to British Intelligence.

Lord Victor Rothschild was a trained biologist in peace and member of the Rothschild banking family. During WW2, British Intelligence recruited him to work for MI5, heading up a three-member explosives and counter-sabotage unit. Rothschild immediately grasped the importance of the information and the need to illustrate Nazi devices to communicate, with other intelligence officers. 

We live in an age when computers are commonplace but that wasn’t the case, in 1943. ENIAC, the first electronic computer wouldn’t come around yet, for another two years. Photoshop was definitely out of the picture and yet, high quality illustrations were needed and quickly, and they had to come from a trusted source. Donald Fish, one of Rothschild’s two colleagues, had just the man. His son.

On this day in 1943, Lord Rothschild typed a letter to illustrator, Laurence Fish.  The letter, marked “secret”, begins: “Dear Fish, I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate…”

The letter went on to describe the mechanism and included a crude sketch, requesting the artist bring the thing, to life.

Laurence Fish would one day become a commercial artist and illustrator, best remembered for his travel posters of the 1950s and ’60s.  He always signed his work, “Laurence”. 

From the pen and ink technical drawings of the war years to the brightly colored travel posters of his post-war career, Laurence Fish was a gifted and versatile artist.

In 1943 that was all for some time in an unknown future, a time when dozens of wartime drawings were quietly left in a drawer and forgotten, for seventy years. For now a world had a war to win and Laurence Fish, played a part.

Hitler’s bomb makers devised all manner of havoc, from booby trapped mess tins to time-delay fuses meant to destroy shipping, at sea.   In 2015, members of the Rothschild family were cleaning out the house, and discovered a trove of Fish’s work.

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The artist is gone now and his name all but forgotten but his work, lives on.  Fish’s illustrations are now in the hands of his widow Jean, an archivist and former journalist living in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Thanks to her we can see this forgotten piece of history in her husband’s work, last shown in an exhibition last year over the weekend of September 18 – 19.

And a good thing it is. The man has earned the right to be remembered.

April 29, 1944 The White Mouse

To WW2-era British Special Operations she was Hélène.  To the Maquis she was Andrée. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”. To the Gestapo who wanted her dead, she was the “White Mouse.”

It was March 1944 in occupied France, when the French Resistance leader Henri Tardivat found her, dangling from a tree. Her name was Nancy Wake, and she had just jumped from a B24 bomber, with a pocketful of classified documents. Tardivat couldn’t help himself. “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”. “Don’t give me that French shit” she snapped, as she cut herself out of the tree.

Nancy Wake was not a woman to be trifled with.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia as a young girl. She later moved to Paris where she met her future husband, the wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca.

As a freelance journalist, a Parisian newspaper sent Wake to Vienna in 1933 to interview a German politician, by the name of Adolf Hitler. There she witnessed firsthand the wretched treatment meted out to Austrian Jews by followers of the future dictator. She vowed she would oppose this man, by any means necessary.

She would get her chance in 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg tore through Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

The couple had the means to leave but chose to stay in France, to help the Maquis. The French Resistance. For two years, Nancy and her husband Henri worked to hide downed allied flyers and get them out, of Nazi occupied France.

With the Gestapo reading their mail and staking out the Fiocca home the writing was on the wall. Nancy fled while Henri remained in Paris, to continue the couples work with the resistance.

Henri would be captured and tortured before execution, to reveal the whereabouts of his wife. Nancy would not learn until after the war, the man never gave up her whereabouts.

The British SOE called her by the code name, Hélène. To the Maquis she was Andrée. It was during her flight from France that Wake earned the name which would stick, given by the Gestapo who wanted her dead. “White Mouse,” they called her, for her ability to hide in plain sight and to disappear, without a trace. “A little powder and a little drink on the way” she later explained “and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me? God”, she said, “what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

Once picked up on a train outside of Toulouse she spun a wild tale about being the mistress, of one of the guards. She pleaded with her captors that her husband could never know. Astonishingly, they let her go.

Wake eventually escaped occupied France moving first through the Pyrenees into Spain and then, to England. There she joined the British Special Operatives Executive (SOE). The training was intense: infiltration/exfiltration techniques, tradecraft, weapons, even hand-to-hand combat. Her trainers called her as competent, as the men in her class.

On April 29, 1944, Wake parachuted into the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of occupied France, part of a three-person team sent to support three Maquis organizations, operating in the region. She participated in a major combat operation pitting resistance members against the German wehrmacht. It was a major defeat for the Marquee. She later said she bicycled 500 km to bring a situation report, to her SOE handlers.

One day she found herself on an SOE team, on the inside of a German munitions factory. An SS guard nearly gave up the whole operation when he arrived, to investigate. Wake killed the man, with her bare hands. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff” she later explained, “with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

SOE official historian M. R. D. Foot said “her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her”. Henri Tardivat may have given her the ultimate compliment, after the war. “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts” he recalled. “Then, she is like five men.”

She was the most decorated woman of World War 2, awarded the George Medal by Great Britain, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance by her adopted home nation, and three times, the Croix de Guerre. 

After the war

She worked for a time with the intelligence department at the British Air Ministry and dabbled in politics, after the war. She remarried, the union with RAF officer John Forward lasting 40 years until his death but producing, no children.

The White Mouse died of a chest infection on August 7, 2011, after a brief hospitalization. She was 98. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”.

She sold her medals along the way, because she needed the money. “There was no point in keeping them,” she said. “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”

November 1, 1945 X-Day

For years, everyone believed that semi-submersible craft in Fall River must have been a kamikaze vessel, from World War 2. The story that funny little boat had to tell was very different. The tale of a history, that never was.

If you’re ever in southeastern Massachusetts, be sure to visit Battleship Cove in Fall River, the largest collection of World War 2 naval craft, in the world. The Battleship Cove museum sports some sixty exhibits, preserving the naval heritage of these iconic vessels and the veterans who served them.

To inspect battle damage visible to this day on the decks of USS Massachusetts is to realize United States armed forces once exchanged shots in anger with our French ally, at a place called Casablanca. The attack sub USS Lionfish once performed “lifeguard duty”, the rescue of downed fliers, off the coast of Japan. Her captain was Lieutenant Commander Edward D. Spruance, son of Admiral Raymond Spruance who commanded US naval forces during one of the most significant naval battles of the Pacific, the battle of the Philippine Sea.

To walk aboard USS Massachusetts or USS Lionfish, is to experience a side of WW2, fast disappearing from living memory.

Battleship Cove

Walk among the wooden-hulled PT boats of the Pacific war, and there you will find a strange little craft. One of three planned for and only two, ever built. Closed at the top and semi-submersible, a Japanese kamikaze boat perhaps, designed for suicide missions against allied warships. Museum management believed just that and mislabeled the display, for years.

The other it turns out is on display at Central Intelligence headquarters, at Langley, Virginia. Years later a retired CIA employee visiting Battleship cove spotted the error. CIA files declassified in 2011 added detail to a very different story, from that of Japanese suicide vessels.  To the tale of a history, that never was.

On August 2, 1939, Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd delivered a letter which would change history, to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Written in consultation with fellow Hungarian physicists Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner and signed by Albert Einstein, the letter warned that Nazi Germany was working to develop atomic weapons, and urged the American government to develop a nuclear program of its own.  Immediately, if not sooner.

The Einstein–Szilárd letter spawned the super-secret Manhattan project, culminating in the atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, and ending the war in the Pacific in August, 1945.

At the time, precious few were aware of even the possibility of such a weapon.  Fewer still, the existence of a program dedicated to building one.  Vice President Harry Truman, second only to the Commander in Chief himself, was entirely ignorant of the Manhattan project and only read in following the death of the President in April, 1945.

Female students with the Kokumin Giyū Sentōtai, the Volunteer Fighting Corps, prepare for the Allied projected invasion

The battle for the Japanese home islands was expected to be a fight like no other. Casualties of a million or more were expected, and for good reason. Japanese soldiers fought with such fanaticism, that hundreds continued to resist, years after the war was ended. The last holdout wouldn’t lay down his arms until 1974. 29 years, 3 months, and 16 days after the war had ended.

Such frenzied resistance would not be isolated to Japanese military forces, either. Japanese government propaganda warned of “American devils raping and devouring Japanese women and children.” American GIs looked on in horror in 1944, as hundreds if not thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians hurled themselves to their death, at Laderan Banadero and “Banzai Cliff” on the northern Mariana island of Saipan. One correspondent wrote with admiration of such mass suicides, praising “the finest act of the Shōwa period”… “the pride of Japanese women.”

This is what their government, had taught these people to believe.

Plans for the final defeat of the Imperial Japanese Empire all but wrote themselves, phase one launched from the south against the main island of Kyūshū, and using the recently captured island of Okinawa, as staging area.  Phase two was the planned invasion of the Kantō Plain toward Tokyo, on the island of Honshu.

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Operation Downfall

The story of the D-Day invasion begins with deception, a massive head fake intended to draw German defenders away from intended landing zones. “Operation Downfall” offered no such opportunities, for deceit. Geography dictated the method of attack, and everybody knew it. Virtually everything left of Japanese military might would be assembled for the all-out defense of Kyūshū, against what would be the largest amphibious invasion, in history.

This was to be a full frontal assault with no subterfuge and nowhere, to hide.

American military planners ordered half a million Purple Hearts, in preparation for the final invasion of the Japanese home islands. To this day, military forces have yet to use them all. As of 2003 some 120,000 Purple Heart medals still remained, in inventory.

The whole thing would begin on “X-Day”.  November 1, 1945.

Which brings us back to that funny-looking boat, in Fall River. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to the modern CIA, built two of these semi-submersibles. The vessel was called “Gimik”, part of a top-secret operation code named “NAPKO”.

GIMIK, underway

Ten teams were envisioned varying from five to a single individual. 55 Korean-Americans and Korean prisoners freed from Japanese prison labor camps were trained to infiltrate Japanese occupied Korea and possibly Japan itself, to collect intelligence and carry out sabotage against military targets in advance of Operation Downfall. None were aware even of the existence of the other teams lest any, were to fall into Japanese hands.

The GIMIK craft were built by John Trumpy and sons yacht yard of Annapolis Maryland, builders of the presidential yacht, Sequoia

Operated by a single OSS officer with two Korean operatives and up to 1,000-pounds of equipment secured inside, the GIMIK craft would be their means of insertion. 19-feet long and built of plywood to avoid radar and sonar detection, the snorkel was wrapped in steel wool to confound discovery. The craft were to be delivered on theater via submarine in large metal boxes called “coffins’. After insertion, the vessels would go fully submerged and anchor to the bottom where they were equipped to operate, for up to four weeks.

Operated by a single OSS officer with two Korean operatives and up to 1,000-pounds of equipment secured inside, the GIMIK craft would be their means of insertion. 19-feet long and built of plywood to avoid radar and sonar detection, the snorkel was wrapped in steel wool to confound discovery. The craft were to be delivered on theater via submarine in large metal boxes called “coffins’. After insertion, the vessels would go fully submerged and anchor to the bottom where they were equipped to operate, for up to four weeks.

The NAPKO operation was conceived and run by OSS Colonel Carl Eifler, who hope to have as many as seven teams, operational. Tactical focus would then be placed on those best positioned, for ultimate success. As it turned out only two teams were ever ready, for the operational stage.

“Code-named ‘Kinec’ and ‘Charo.’ Both were very similar in concept, differing primarily in intended points of penetration and operating areas. Kinec envisioned landing five agents at Chemulpo Bay, about 20 miles outside Seoul on the country’s west coast; Charo was focused on Pyongyang following penetration via Wonsan and utilized three, rather than five, Korean agents. Typical of NAPKO missions, the teams were to carry minimal equipment and supplies: 100,000 yen, a radio, appropriate clothing for passing as locals, and a Japanese-manufactured shovel for burying the team’s equipment after landing.”

Hat tip former Special Forces NCO Steve Balestrieri, writing for SOFREP.com

The mission was extremely dangerous for obvious reasons.  Training was carried out during the summer of 1945 on Catalina Island, off the California coast.  The two boats, nicknamed “Gizmos”, were tested at night against the US Naval base in Los Angeles. Even this part was dangerous, since no one was told about the trials. Should such a vessel be detected entering the American installation, it would be treated as an enemy vessel, and destroyed.

In the end, the Gizmo teams never left American waters.  Several such tests were carried out without detection, leading to a scheduled departure date of August 26, 1945.  It was never meant to be.

A parallel and equally secret plan to end the war literally burst on the scene on August 6, 1945.  The war would be over, in another nine days.

September 21, 1776 One Life to Lose

An ardent patriot in the cause of American independence, the young school teacher turned spy placed his trust, where it did not belong.

From the earliest days of the American Revolution, the nine Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut fought on the Patriot side. Five of them were there to help out at the battles at Lexington and Concord. The youngest and most famous brother was still at home in New London at the time, finishing the term of a teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit participated in the siege of Boston. Hale himself joined General George Washington’s army in the spring of 1776, as the army moved to Long Island to block the British move on the strategically important port city of New York.

On June 29, General Howe appeared at Staten Island with a fleet of 45 ships. By the end of the week, he’d assembled an overwhelming fleet of 130.

There was an attempt at peaceful negotiation on July 13, when General Howe sent a letter to General Washington under flag of truce. The letter was addressed “George Washington, Esq.”, intentionally omitting Washington’s rank. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying there was no one present by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”. Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

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British Landing on Long island

The next day, General Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour in person, to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant, Colonel James Patterson. A meeting was scheduled for the 20th.

Patterson told Washington that General Howe had come with powers to grant pardons.  Washington refused, saying “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon”.

Patriot forces were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. With the Royal Navy in command on the water, Howe’s army dug in for a siege, confident that the adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience.

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British retreat from Long Island

On the night of August 29-30, Washington withdrew his army to the ferry landing and across the East River, to Manhattan.

With horse’s hooves and wagon wheels muffled, oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew, as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still there.

The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of the 30th.  The Patriot army had vanished.

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the Patriot cause, but for that silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded.  Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe (William’s brother), from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington became increasingly desperate for information on British movements.

Nathan Hale Capture

Washington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  Up stepped a volunteer.  His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out on his mission on September 10, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”.  The young and untrained Patriot-turned spy, placed his trust where it did not belong.

Major Robert Rogers was an old British hand, a leader of Rangers during the earlier French and Indian War.  Rogers must have suspected that this Connecticut schoolteacher was more than he pretended to be, and intimated that he, himself, was a spy in the Patriot cause.

The hanging of Nathan Hale

Hale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side.  Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next, in his journal: “The time being come, Captain Hale repaired to the place agreed on, where he met his pretended friend” (Rogers), “with three or four men of the same stamp, and after being refreshed, began [a]…conversation. But in the height of their conversation, a company of soldiers surrounded the house, and by orders from the commander, seized Captain Hale in an instant. But denying his name, and the business he came upon, he was ordered to New York. But before he was carried far, several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

The “stay behind” spy Hercules Mulligan would have far greater success reporting on British goings-on, from the 1776 capture of New York to the ultimate withdrawal seven years later.  But that is a story for another day.

Nathan Hale was arrested on September 21, 1776, and hanged as a spy. He was 21. CIA.gov describes Hale as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan Hale

There is no official account of Nathan Hale’s final words, but we have an eyewitness statement from British Captain John Montresor, who was present at the hanging.

Montresor spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day under flag of truce.  He gave Hull the following account: “‘On the morning of his execution,’ said Montresor, ‘my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.’ He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

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July 30, 1916 Sabotage

[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”

In the early months of the Great War, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the high seas of the Kaiser’s surface ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at this time, when over a hundred German ships sought refuge in American harbors.

The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash but, for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

British-blockadeTo the Central Powers, such trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys, fighting for the Fatherland on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations came under attack. Less apparent at that time was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German, agents on US soil.

“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

Sanitary_&_Topographical_Map_of_Hudson_County,_N.J
Black Tom Island, 1880

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

In the small hours of the morning, around 2:00am, guards discovered a series of small fires. Some tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a detonation so massive as to be estimated at 5.5, on the Richter scale. People were awakened from Maryland to Connecticut in what many thought was an earthquake. The Brooklyn Bridge shook. The walls of Jersey City’s municipal building were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away, while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

Black_Tom_explosion_-_firefighters_-_1916
Firefighters were unable to fight the fires until the bullets and shrapnel stopped flying. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church, and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan. Damage to the skirt and torch carried by the Statue of Liberty alone, came to over $2¼ million in 2017 dollars. To this day the ladder to “Lady Liberty’s” torch remains off limits, to visitors.

The enormous vaulted ceiling of Ellis Island’s main hall, collapsed.  According to one Park officer, damage to the Ellis Island complex came to $500,000 “half the one million dollars it cost the government to build the facility.”

Wrecked_warehouses_and_scattered_debris_after_the_Black_Tom_Explosion,_1916Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, a ten week old infant, and the barge captain.

The explosion at Black Tom nearly brought the US into the war against Germany, but that would wait for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. That, and a telegram from German Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann, promising US territories to Mexico, in exchange for a declaration of war against the US.

Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such act of sabotage. The archive at cia.gov states that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

Responsibility for the Black Tom explosion was never proven, conclusively. Early suspicions centered on accidental causes. Legal wrangling would climb the judicial ladder all the way to the United States Supreme Court and continue well into the second World War. Anna Rushnak, an elderly Czech immigrant who ran a four-bits-a-night boarding house in Bayonne was thrown from her bed by the explosion, to find then-23-year-old Michael Kristoff sitting on the edge of his bed, mumbling “What I do? What I do?”

View_of_the_debris_of_the_Lehigh_Valley_pier_after_Black_Tom_explosion_(cropped)
Lehigh Valley Railroad pier, after the explosion

Kristoff, a Slovakian subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s principle ally in World War 1, was arrested by Bayonne Police, interrogated, and judged to be “insane but harmless.”

In 1922, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was buried in lawsuits, and looking to fix blame on a German act of sabotage. Located in an Albany jail where he was serving time for theft Kristoff came to the judicial spotlight, once again. He admitted working for the Germans “for a few weeks” back in 1916, but was released before the claim could be investigated. Kristoff was finally traced to a pauper’s grave in 1928 and there ends his story, yet that ‘insane but harmless’ label remains open to question. Papers carried on the body exhumed from that potter’s field were indeed those of Michael Kristoff, but the dental records, didn’t match.

410px-Franz_von_Rintelen
“German Master Spy Franz Von Rintelen and his “pencil bomb” were responsible for acts of sabotage in the United States during World War I”. H/T Smithsonian

Meanwhile, suspicion fell on the German-born naturalized citizen Kurt Jahnke who ran sabotage operations for the German Admiralty out of bases in San Francisco and Mexico City with his assistant, Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke. Witzke was arrested on February 1, 1918 in Nogales, Arizona and convicted by court martial. He was sentenced to death, though the war was over before sentence could be carried out. President Wilson later commuted the sentence, to life.

By 1923, most nations were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A report from Leavenworth prison shows Witzke heroically risking his life, entering a boiler room after an explosion and probably averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released. Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923 and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

The U.S.–German Peace Treaty of 1921 established the German-American Mixed Claims Commission, which declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had, in fact been responsible and awarded a judgement of $50 million.  The Nazi government refused to pay and the matter was finally settled in 1953, with a judgement of $95 million (including interest) against the Federal Republic of Germany. The final payment was made in 1979.

Shrapnel damage may be see to this day, on the statue of Liberty

The Black Tom explosion and related acts of pro-German espionage resulted in the Federal Espionage Act signed into law in June 1917, creating, among its other provisions, a “Bureau of Investigation” under the United States Department of Justice. 

Nothing remains today of the Black Tom terminal or the largest foreign terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11, save for a plaque, as seen in the photograph below.  That, and a new law enforcement bureaucracy, called the FBI.

800px-StatueOfLibertyFromBlackTomIslandToday
View of the Statue of Liberty from the site of the Black Tom explosion

July 5, 1915 A Man of Science

Fancy the irony that, today as I write this, a 7-foot “non-scalable fence” surrounds the Capitol building, in Washington DC. In those days, you were apparently free to stroll about, with a bomb in your hands. At least while Congress was in recess.

The train left Boston station in April 1906, headed for Chicago. On board were the infant, the toddler, the nanny and the children’s father, Professor Erich Muenter, a German language instructor from Harvard University.  The two little girls’ mother was onboard as well.  Leone (Krembs) Muenter was in her casket taking a one-way trip to her own funeral, and burial in her home town.  She had passed from some sort of stomach ailment, ten days after giving birth.

The story may have ended there, but for Dr. Herbert McIntyre.  The circumstances of Leone’s death didn’t add up. Dr. McIntyre ordered an autopsy.  On April 27, Cambridge police issued a warrant for the arrest of Professor Erich Muenter for the murder of his wife, by arsenic poisoning.

Man of science

Apparently, this “man of science” wanted to test his theory that you could literally see the soul passing, at the moment of death.  Now, Erich Muenter vanished.

Eight years later, the European continent exploded in the ‘War to End Wars’.

US policy at this time allowed arms sales to any and all belligerents in the European war.  With British dominance of North Atlantic shipping routes, for all intents and purposes this meant France and Great Britain.

German language professor Frank Holt was teaching at Cornell University in 1915.  A naturalized citizen and committed German nationalist, Holt had ties with the secret German spy intelligence unit Abteilung IIIb, which was conducting a campaign of sabotage against US ships carrying munitions ‘over there’.

Frank Holt might have described himself as a ‘peace activist’, obsessed with the idea that arms themselves were extending the war.  If arms exports were brought to a halt he believed, the war would come to an end.

Holt gave up arguing the point on July 2 and took a train to Washington DC.  In his hands he carried a bomb, three sticks of dynamite attached to a timing mechanism, ingeniously designed to go off when the acid ate through the cork stopper. 

Fancy the irony that, today as I write this, a 7-foot “non-scalable fence” surrounds the Capitol building, in Washington DC. In those days, you were apparently free to stroll about, with a bomb in your hands. At least while Congress was in recess.

Finding the Senate chamber locked, Holt placed his package under a telephone switchboard in the Senate reception room, with the timer set to go off around midnight.

The explosion when it came, was enormous. The room was torn to pieces while, across the building, a night watchman was blown out of his chair.  Writing to the Washington Star newspaper under the pseudonym R. Pearce, Holt explained his intentions to “make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war. This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.”

Senate_Bombing_July_2,_1915
Aftermath of the Senate bombing, July 2, 1915

The following day, a tiny little box on the front page of the New York Times attributed the explosion to ‘gasses’.  The paper was hitting news stands as Frank Holt headed for Long Island, to the Glen Cove estate of “the Great Pierpont”, J. P. Morgan.  Armed with two revolvers, a suitcase full of dynamite and a few anti-war newspaper clippings, Holt bulled his way through the butler who opened the door, and into the Morgan residence.

JP Morgan
John Pierpont Morgan

Pandemonium broke out in the home, as Holt turned his weapons on the four Morgan children.  Mrs. Morgan tried to block the path to her husband but the millionaire financier lunged, tackling the much smaller man to the ground.  Holt fired twice into Morgan’s thigh and groin, as the pair went down together.  Pierpont twisted the gun from his grasp as Mrs. Morgan and a gaggle of household servants struggled for the other.  All the while, the butler pounded the would-be assassin’s head with a lump of coal as Holt shouted “Kill me! Kill me now! I don’t want to live any more. I have been in a perfect hell for the last six months on account of the European war!

A copy of the R. Pearce letter quickly tied Holt to the Capitol bombing, as former colleagues identified the long-since vanished, alleged killer of Leone Muenter.  Frank Holt and Erich Muenter were the same man.

A colleague once described Muenter as “a brilliant man, a tireless worker, and a profound student.  Night after night he would sit reading, studying and writing while his wife lay asleep in a room nearby.” The Harvard Crimson newspaper described him as “harmless on the surface…affect[ing] a scholarly stoop and a Van Dyke, and wore dingy, patched suits”.  Fluent in seven languages he was the pale, bearded model of the junior faculty intellectual, complete with elbow patches.

For all his vaunted brilliance, Erich Muenter was nuttier than a squirrel turd.  His intention as explained to police, was to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage, until the financier cut off loans to Europe.  He told police of his intention to assassinate J.P. Morgan, as well.  How the two objectives squared with one another, remains to be explained.

Erich Muenter

That Sunday morning, July 4, the J.P. Morgan shooting seems to have been front page on every newspaper in the world.  On July 5, Erich Muenter took the brass ferrule from a pencil eraser, and slit his wrist.  That suicide attempt was unsuccessful.  The following day he scaled the bars of his prison cell and jumped, leaving his brains on the concrete floor, twenty feet below.

The day after his death, Police tracked down a trunk Muenter left in a New York city storage facility.  In it were 134 sticks of dynamite, blasting caps, fuse coils, batteries, nitric acid, windproof matches, mercury fulminate and smokeless explosive powder. Three tin can bombs had been recently completed, and were ready to go.  Inspector of Combustibles Owen Egan declared the find to be “the greatest equipment for bomb making ever brought to New York”.

That same day, the 2nd Mrs. Muenter received a letter from her dead husband.  It said that an arms shipment headed for England would go to the bottom, that very day.    Warned by wireless, the crew of SS Minnehaha frantically searched for the bomb, without success.  Muenter’s bomb went off and touched off a fire, but it was far away from Minnehaha’s cargo of high explosives, and did little damage to the ship itself.

SS Minnehaha

The vessel sustained little damage at the time but, in the end, the ghost of Erich Muenter had his way. The Harland & Wolff liner SS Minnehaha was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast with the loss of 43, on September 7, 1917. There was one survivor.

April 30, 1943 The Man who Never Was

There is a war memorial in the small South Wales town of Aberbargoed, in memory of Glyndwr Michael. In poetic prose so Tolkienish it could only be welsh, a plaque is inscribed with this phrase “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed“.  It means “The Man Who Never Was”.


The idea was a head fake, disinformation planted into the hands of Nazi Germany, to make the enemy believe the allies planned to invade Sardinia and Greece in 1943, rather than the real targets of North Africa and Sicily. British Military Intelligence codenamed the ruse “Operation Mincemeat”.

The London coroner obtained the body of a 34-year-old homeless man by the name of Glyndwr Michael, on condition that his real identity never be revealed. The Welshman had died of rat poison though it’s uncertain whether the death was accidental, or suicide.  This particular poison came in a paste, and was spread on bread crusts to attract rats.  Michael may have died, merely because he was hungry.

glyndwr-martin

Be that as it may, the cause of death was difficult to detect, the condition of the corpse close to that of someone who had died at sea, of hypothermia and drowning. The dead man’s parents were both deceased, there were no known relatives and the man died friendless.  So it was that Glyndwr Michael became the Man who Never Was.

The next step was to create a “past” for the dead man. Michael became “(Acting) Major William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines”, born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations. As a Royal Marine, “Martin” could wear battle dress rather than a naval uniform. This was important, because Naval uniforms at the time were tailor-made by Gieves & Hawkes of Saville Row.  Authorities could hardly ask Gieves’ tailors to measure a corpse, without raising eyebrows.

The Operation Mincemeat team who helped to change the course of World War 2. H/T UK Guardian

The rank of acting major made Martin senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that anyone would expect to know him. The name “Martin” was chosen because there were several Martins of about that rank, already serving in the Royal Marines.

A “fiancé” was furnished for Major Martin in the form of an MI5 clerk named “Pam”. “Major Martin” carried her snapshot, along with two love letters and a jeweler’s bill, for a diamond engagement ring.

In keeping with his rank, Martin was given good quality underwear to increase his authenticity. Extremely difficult to obtain due to rationing, the underwear was purloined from the Master of the New College Oxford, who’d been run over and killed, by a truck.

The Man Who Never Was Year 1956 Director Ronald Neame
Scene from “The Man Who Never Was”, 1956, Directed by Ronald Neame

Made to look like the victim of a plane crash, the plan was to drop the body at sea at a place where the tide would bring it ashore and into German Hands.

On April 30, 1943 Lieutenant Norman Jewell, commander of the submarine Seraph, read the 39th Psalm.  The body of the man who never was, complete with briefcase padlocked to his wrist containing “secret” documents, slid into the ocean off the Spanish coast.

Glyndwr-Michael-memorial

The hoax worked, nicely.  A Spanish fisherman recovered the body and a Nazi agent intercepted the papers, as intended.  Mussolini insisted correctly that the allied attack would come through Sicily, but Hitler wasn’t buying it.  Der Führer swallowed the Mincemeat ruse whole insisting that the Sicilian attack was nothing but a diversion, from the real objective.

When the Allies invaded Sicily on the 9th of July, the Germans were so convinced it was a feint that they kept forces out of action for two full weeks.  After that, it was too late to affect the outcome.

The non-existent Major William Martin was buried with military honors in the Huelva cemetery of Nuestra Señora under a headstone which reads:

“William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, R.I.P.”  The Latin phrase means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Inscription

In 1998, the British Government revealed Martin’s true identity, and “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”, was added to the gravestone.

There is a war memorial in the small South Wales town of Aberbargoed, in memory of Glyndwr Michael. In poetic prose so Tolkienish it could only be welsh, a plaque is inscribed with this phrase “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed“.  It means “The Man Who Never Was”.

November 22, 1923 Black Tom

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations, were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.


In the early months of the Great War, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the seas of the Kaiser’s ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at the time, when over a hundred German vessels sought refuge in American harbors.

maxresdefault

The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash but for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

To the Central Powers, this trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations, were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.

Black_Tom_4

“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal contained over two million pounds of ammunition in freight cars, and a hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

Around 2:00 that morning, guards discovered a series of small fires. Some of them tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a massive detonation estimated at 5.5 on the Richter scale.  People from Maryland to Connecticut were awakened in what many believed was an earthquake. The walls of Jersey City’s City Hall were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

Black_Tom_3

Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan.  Damage done to the Statue of Liberty alone was valued at over $2 million in today’s dollars. To this day, the ladder to Liberty’s torch, remains off limits to visitors.

Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, one ten-week-old infant and a barge captain.

Black Tom 2

The explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports: “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

black-tom-island-explosion

Among those responsible for the Black Tom explosion was Naval Lieutenant Lothar Witzke, arrested on February 1, 1918, in Nogales, AZ. Witzke was convicted by court martial and sentenced to death. President Woodrow Wilson later commuted his sentence, to life.

By 1923, most nations were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A prison report from Leavenworth shows Witzke heroically risking his own life in prison, entering a boiler room after an explosion and almost surely averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released.  Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923 and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

November 19, 1904 The Hunted

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. These are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. We rarely know their names and yet, there are times when the lives of millions hang in the balance.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. These are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. We rarely know their names and yet, there are times when the lives of millions hang in the balance.

Sven Somme

One such was Iacob Sømme, a Norwegian who was caught, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, for his role in sabotaging the Nazi heavy water plant in Telemark, in 1943.

But for the work of men such as this, we are left only to imagine a world in which the Nazi Swastika was painted on the sides of “Little boy” and “Fat Man”. We may thank the likes of Iacob Sømme that such a world remains merely one of nightmare imagination.

Another such man was Iacob’s brother Sven, born this day, November 19, 1904.

Like his brother, Sven Sømme joined the Norwegian Resistance to fight the Nazis who had occupied his country since 1940. A scientist and fisheries officer, Somme joined the Resistance. He would photograph strategic German military bases using a miniature camera, sending covert maps, photographs and intelligence reports to the Allies hidden under the postage stamps, on letters.

In 1944, guards saw the sun glint off a camera’s lens, and came running. Sømme had been caught, taking pictures of a German U-boat base on Otteroy island. Sven tried hiding the tiny camera under a rock, but the Germans quickly found it. He was put in cuffs.

The penalty for what he was doing, was the firing squad. He would be lucky not to be tortured to death.

That night, Sømme managed to slip his handcuffs and creep past his sleeping guard. What followed was a nightmare race to freedom. A relentless hunt two months in duration, across 200 miles of snow covered mountains.

The Norwegian had barely an hour’s head start. The Nazis couldn’t let this man escape. He knew too much. Pursued by 900 troops and a pack of bloodhounds, Sømme worked his way through icy streams and across ravines moving ever higher, into the mountains.

Otrøya island (right) where Sømme photographed the torpedo base, at Midfjorden. H/T Wikipedia

He wore a pair of beat up dress shoes and certainly would have succumbed to frostbite in the mountains, had he not been taken in for a time by a friendly family. He couldn’t stay for long, but the family’s 19-year-old son Andre gave him the pair of mountain boots.

Sven Somme, tree

Sømme would wade through icy streams to avoid leaving tracks in the snow, or leap from one tree to another, a game he‘d once learned, as a kid. He trekked 200 miles through the mountains in this manner dodging bears and wolves. That baying horde was never far from his heels.

At last he made it to neutral Sweden, where he was taken to England. There he met the exiled King of Norway, and the woman who would one day become his wife and mother of his three daughters, an English woman named Primrose.

Mountaineer Arne Randers Heen guided Sømme through the steep mountains from Isfjord to Eikesdalen (photo) and locals in Eikesdal helped him through the difficult terrain in from Eikesdal to Aursjøen lake. From there he walked across Norway to Sweden. H/T Wikipedia

Sven Sømme passed away in 1961 following a battle with cancer. Primrose died not long after. It was only in going through her things after she passed, that the three girls discovered their father’s history. The photographs, the letters, even an arrest warrant, written out in German and Norwegian.

Documents: His daughter has now found an incredible archive of secret documents he collected while working as a spy” H/T UK Daily Mail

Sømme had written a memoir about his escape. He called it “Another Man’s Shoes”. In 2004, his daughters used the book to retrace their father’s epic flight across the mountains. They even met the family who had sheltered him and, to their amazement, they still had his old shoes. The book is still in print as far as I know. It has a forward by his daughter Ellie, describing their emotional meeting with the family who had sheltered her father.

It must be one hell of a story.

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