Category Archives: The Second World War – Fun Friday Facts

The story of The Second World War told through the medium of Fun Friday Facts – bitesize morsels of information perfect for breaking the tension in that end of week meeting.

Fun Friday Fact #18

Due to an oversight at the end of the First World War, Andorra found itself engaged in two world wars at the same time.

The tiny Pyrenean state’s name was omitted from the Treaty of Versailles (1919), meaning that the 11-man national army remained technically at war with Germany. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 placed too much of a strain on the Andorran resources. The beleaguered country hastily signed a private treaty with Germany, finally concluding the First World War and confirming its neutrality in the Second. In benching itself for the second global conflict, Andorra joined a long line of heroes including Ireland, Switzerland and those once mighty empires of Spain and Portugal.

Note: neutral status provided no guarantees from attack. For example Britain invaded the neutral Iceland, whilst Hitler was quick to take over the low countries and add them to his treasure chest.

That was fun now, wasn’t it? I’m sorry to inform you, my beloved readers, that this will be my final Fun Friday Fact. It’s been real, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, but I want to turn my attention elsewhere. I know you’ll understand. Goodbye, friends, goodbye.

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Fun Friday Fact #17

Between July and December 1941, with its economic centres around Moscow within reach of the advancing German army, the Soviet Union dismantled 1,523 enterprises piece by piece and transported them to the Urals, Volga, Kazakhstan and eastern Siberia.

On June 22nd 1941, Germany declared war with Russia and launched the now infamous ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Within a matter of months, the German army was only 150 miles away from the Russian capital. The German’s sweep through the rich iron, coal and steel regions of western Russian and the Ukraine had deprived Soviet industry of 3/4 of its iron ore, coal and steel, the beating heart of modern industry. 1/3 of its railway was lost and the availability of resources vital for the production of modern weapons, such as aluminium, manganese and copper, was cut by 2/3. To top it all, the rich grain lands in the Soviet ‘bread basket’ were in enemy hands, so that grain supplies fell by half for the 130 million Soviet citizens living in unoccupied Russia. In short, by December 1941, the Russian economy was on its knees.

Had Russia have fallen in 1941, then it is unlikely that Britain would have survived alone, certainly not against a Germany with the bulk of European industry under its control. But somehow the Soviet economy survived. In a truly staggering feat of human ingenuity, those factories within enemy range were dismantled and carried eastwards out of danger in one and a half million wagon loads on the Soviet rail network. In addition, 16 million Soviet workers were able to escape the German net, to stoke the fires again, some of them starting up production on the frozen floor as the factories were built around them. For the remainder of the war, the Russian war effort was sustained on this remarkable expansion so much so that from 1942, the eastern zones supplied 3/4 of all Soviet weapons and almost all the iron and steel.

The state of the affairs grows all the more incredible when one reflects on the fact that, in 1942, Russian industry produced more weapons in a year than it had done so before and more weapons than the enemy.

The main reason behind Russian industrial success was that the economy was centrally planned. This meant that, unlike America’s free market economy, where one could not simply turn milk into planes, anything and anyone could be used to promote war productions at the expense of everything else. The Soviet Union was turned into ‘Stalin’s single war camp.’ Businesses did not need to show a profit – there were no material incentives offered to factory workers working 16 hour days. The Soviet people were well used to state-set targets, and had been since the pre-war Five-Year plans. They knew the price of failure.

The effectiveness of the Russian economic plan from 1941-45 lay in its scale and its simplicity. The industrial centres in the Urals were not pretty, but each served a specific purpose: Magnitogorsk was the main producer of steel; Chelyabinsk, or ‘Tankograd’ churned out T-34s. The Soviet Union could not afford the luxury of employing a wide range of different types of weapons (they lacked the skilled labour and factory capacity) but this actually transpired to work in their favour. Crude mass-producition ensured large numbers and robust construction of a single model. This meant that spare parts (for tanks, planes etc.) were readily available, and that mechanics were well-versed with a particular model and could fix it quickly when it invariably broke down.

By comparison, the German economy in the Second World War was a bureaucratic nightmare. Hitler had attempted to take military control of economic affairs in a country where there was no precendent. As a result of the German military’s obsession with technological excellence each time a small problem was noticed in the performance of one of their machines, a whole new model would be developed so that the German army fielded a dizzying array of machinery. For example, while the Soviets had 5 main aircraft types, the Germans had 425. There was no chance that a German engineer would know how to fix all of them, or carry the necessary parts.

The German penchant for quality over quantity also meant that they were unable to compete with the Russians in terms of numbers. They saw mass-production as a synonym for ‘shoddy goods’ to the point where each of their weapons was painstakingly custom built. The great strengths of their economy had always been (and still are) high quality, skilled workmanship. But this was not enough. The Germans did produce better weapons than their enemies in many cases, but they were too expensive in terms of money and labour.

This failure on the part of the German economy to identify a winning strategy meant that the new Russian industrial centres were able to outproduce the Germans with a fraction of their resources and from a much smaller skilled work base. In 1943, the Soviet Union turned 8 mil tons of steel and 90 mil tons of coal into 48,000 heavy artillery and 24,00 tanks, while the Germans turned 30 mil tons of steel and 340 mil tons of coal into 27,000 heavy artillery and 17,000 tanks.

However tempting it is to claim the Germans lost the war with Russia, it is clear that the Russians won it. And as I have mentioned before, Stalin owed his country’s survival to the Soviet people, heroically toiling day after day on 1/5 of the British rations. For more details about their story, or the Second World War in general, one should consult Richard Overy’s excellent ‘Why The Allies Won’.

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Fun Friday Fact #16

At the time of Pearl Harbor, the Commander-in-Chief of the US navy was referred to as CINCUS, pronounced ‘sink us’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no sooner had Japan obliged America’s request than the title was hastily changed to the less controversial COMINCH.

Enough said I think.

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Fun Friday Fact #15

Ian Fleming’s James Bond is allegedly based on Serbian Second World War double agent Dusko Popov.

Popov was born in 1912 in Titel, Austria-Hungary (now Serbia). He was signed up as a spy by anti-Hitler Abwehr agents [crassly the Nazi’s secret service branch] early in the war and on their suggestion he offered his services to the British. Living in London as a double agent, Popov placated his German employers by feeding them scraps of MI6-approved information, while the assignments that were given to him by his earnest Berlin counterparts proved to be of great value to the British in assessing their enemy’s strategy. The Germans were so impressed by Popov’s trail of breadcrumbs that they considered him ‘their best man in Britain.’

Whilst in London, Popov set up a ‘spy ring’, made up of members who were all MI5 operatives. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, the lavish maintenance money they paid to Popov would be spent on operations against themselves.

In 1941, Popov was dispatched to the U.S. by the Abwehr to establish a new German network, after the kind that he had apparently so successfully constructed in London. He was given a list of questions about various intelligence targets, most famously including the American defences at Pearl Harbor.

Popov explained to the F.B.I. what he had been asked to do, but his warning concerning an imminent attack on Pearl Habor was treated with suspicion by the head of the F.B.I. J. Edgar Hoover, who did not approve of Popov’s reckless ways (of which more later). During his time in America, Popov was threatened with arrest and deportation on several occasions.

Having left America, Popov became a key part of the Operation Fortitude deception campaign. After the Second World War, he was awarded with an OBE for his service to Britain, and granted citizenship. He died in 1981.

When he wasn’t selling the Nazi’s down the river, Popov enjoyed what can only be described as an extravagant lifestyle of epic proportions. Charismatic, good looking and the son of a mega-rich industrialist, Popov was paid huge sums by the Nazis, who believed that his play boy shenanigans were a necessary part of his cover. Bankrolled by the German state, he romanced his way around the world. One of his many conquests was  Simone Simon a then-famous (and already married) American actress. His code name ‘Tricycle’ referred to his enthusiasm for three-in-a-bed scenarios.

In 1941, Ian Fleming locked horns with this remorseless womaniser in a casino and was humiliated by him at the baccarat table. The legend goes that Fleming, who was at the time working for the British Navy Intelligence division, had been arrogantly showing off his money when Popov promptly slapped down $50,000 on the table, shaming the lesser man and forcing him to leave the casino in disgrace.

What a hero.

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Fun Friday Fact #14

Allegedly, Adolf Hitler was something of a prankster. On one occasion, his propensity for rambunctious behaviour backfired on him, when his confidant Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl mistook a harmless practical joke for an attempt on his life, and promptly defected to the Allies.

I’m hungover today, and tender as an infant, so here’s how it’s going to work: you listen, I’ll explain.

What you need to realise is that Hitler considered himself quite the joker. In 1937, upset by his less than flattering comments about the fighting spirit of German soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, Hitler stitched up his old mess mate proper like by issuing him pretend orders to parachute into an area of Spain held by the Communists (the baddies).

Not surprisingly, our hero began to fear he was being sent on a suicide mission. As his pilot, apparently rather a lad himself, always eager for a bit of banter and in on the joke, circled Germany, Hanfstaengl grew more and more disconcerted. Convinced that he was on his way to Communist Spain, where his number was sure to be up, he struck a desperate bargain with his pilot and the plane landed safely at Leipzig Airport.

The nightmare over, Putzi fled to Switzerland, and, later England. He was imprisoned as an enemy alien after the outbreak of the Second World War and sent to a prison camp in Canada. In 1942, he was turned over to America, where he worked for President Roosevelt’s “S-Project”, revealing information on approximately 400 Nazi leaders including 68 pages about Hitler alone.

Whoops.

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Fun Friday Fact #13

The American strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific theatre (April – August 1945) killed at least ten times as many Japanese civilians as British civilians were killed in the Blitz (September 1940 – May 1941).

Estimates vary from 300,000 to 900,000 fatalities all told, with the vast majority of these occurring within the above six month period, a quite staggering amount when compared to the ‘paltry’ 44,000 British deaths from 1940-41.

I have touched on this issue before. Japan was overwhelmingly underprepared for a modernised war. Until the final year of the conflict, it had been saved from certain destruction by geography alone. But by Spring 1945 American troops had secured bases in the Marina Islands that were close enough to Japan to reach it with their new long-range heavy bomber, the B-29 Super-Fortress.

Using firestorm techniques they had perfected when flying alongside the British at Dresden, Hamburg and other places during the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, the American bombers destroyed 40% of the built-up area of 66 cities. Japanese houses were largely made of wood, bamboo and paper, and as such there was nothing that the emergency services could do to combat the effects of the incendiary bombs. In addition, the country possessed little to nothing of an airforce itself, and its air defences on the ground were woefully inadequate. The result was catastrophic.

Indeed, so ruthless was the campaign and so impotent the Japanese counter methods, that the Americans quickly began to run out of things to bomb. After hitting the cities of strategic value – Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe – they therefore turned their attention towards the smaller, more vulnerable cities. Aside from the already noted fatalities, 5-8 million people had been made homeless by the end of the war.

The awesome destructive nature of America’s aerial supremacy over Japan combined with its naval blockade of the island made Japanese defeat merely a matter of time. But, whilst the Japanese squabbled over terms of surrender, America had grown tired of waiting. On 6th of August, a lone bomber approached Hiroshima, one of three as of yet untouched cities that the head of American Bomber Command, General Curtis LeMay, had been told to reserve for ‘special treatment’. After initial panic, no other planes were spotted and the air-raid sirens gave the all clear.

As a single bomb fell through the sky on that warm summer’s day, Hiroshima’s inhabitants might have been rubbing pickled onions on their heads, a symbolisation of bombing that was supposed to have rendered immunity. Or else they might have been giving thanks for their good fortune to (American) President Truman’s mother, who was rumoured to be Japanese and living in seclusion in their fine city, and whom they believed to be the very reason why the violence had not reached them.

5 minutes later, 50% of Hiroshima and 40,000 of its inhabitants had been annihilated. Windows shattered 5 miles away from the blast; the city had been reduced to a desolate wasteland, as far as the eye could see. In Tokyo, frantic efforts were made to finalise terms of surrender, but it came too late to avoid a repeat of the nightmare in Nagasaki 3 days later. Finally, the Japanese surrendered on August 15th.

My aim here is not to dispute the morality of the American usage of the atomic bomb, (for that matter neither is it to condemn the Japanese for their appalling treatment of downed American pilots). Rather, I hope to have made plain to you what was evident at the time to each and every member of American High Command, namely that Japan had been defeated long before the decision to drop the nuclear bomb was made. By Summer 1945 it was clear that there would no longer be any need for a land invasion. America’s bombing campaign had destroyed what little was left of their enemy’s capacity to wage war. Japan was a crippled country; it might have limped on a further few weeks, but left alone it would have fallen. There was no need to push it over so severely.

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Fun Friday Fact #12

The first Allied shot of the First World War was fired by the Australian coaster Woniora. By coincidence, the first Allied shot in the Far Eastern theatre of the Second World War was fired at the same ship.  

A pretty remarkable state of affairs, I think you’ll agree.

On August 5th 1914, the UK having declared war on Germany only the day before, the Woniora fired on the German steamer Pfalz (not to be confused with the manufacturer of German planes) when it attempted to leave Australian waters. The Pfalz was captured and served out the rest of the war the Australian troopship HMT Boorara.

Then on September 3rd 1939, the Woniora was fired upon by a (n Allied) twin 6-inch gun emplacement at Point Nepean, the entrance to Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. The ship’s commander, Captain F. N. Smale, had ignored orders to heave-to for inspection.

If you’re interested, the first shot of the Second World War in Europe was fired at 4:47am on the morning of September 1st 1939 (thats 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of the First World War) from the 13,000 ton German gunnery training battleship Schleswig Holstein. The target was the ‘Westerplatte,’ an area of Danzig, now Gdansk, containing Polish troop barracks, munitions storage and workshops.

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