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When 20 Canadian Prisoners Were Murdered By The Waffen SS In Normandy – The Ardenne Abbey Massacre

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H/T War History OnLine.

One more Nazi atrocity committed by the SS during World War II.

Photo Credit: By Burtonne – CC BY-SA 3.0; Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In the early days of the Normandy campaign 20 Canadian soldiers, members of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and 27th Armoured Regiment (part of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment), were captured and executed by Waffen SS forces in a monastery near Caen, France. The incident was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention, which was signed by Germany before the war.

The executioner was the infamous SS Standartenfuhrer, Kurt Meyer. Meyer was in charge of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and under its wing, the fanatical 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. The Hitlerjugend Division was comprised of ex-members of the Hitler Youth, who were sent to Caen to participate in combat against the invading Allies.

Their senior officers were battle-hardened Waffen SS members. Among them was Kurt Meyer, nicknamed Panzermeyer. Before the war, he was trying to establish a career as an apprentice shopkeeper, road builder, and a postman, but was unable to keep a job. He joined the Nazi Party in 1930, three years before Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.

Soon after the beginning of the war, in 1939, Meyer was awarded the Iron Cross and quickly rose through the ranks. He fought on battlefields all over Europe ― he fought in Poland, Netherlands, the Balkans, the Eastern Front and finally France during the Allied invasion. Meyer excelled in battle but also gained a reputation as a war criminal, executing civilians and prisoners alike.

Canadians on Juno Beach, June 1944.
Canadians on Juno Beach, June 1944.

The captured Canadians were all young men, barely out of school, with no combat experience. They were outmanoeuvred and captured in June 1944. The headquarters of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment was located in the Ardenne Abbey, so the soldiers were taken there. The rest of the story is based on evidence gathered during an investigation of the massacre.

Their bodies were discovered on July 8th, 1944, after the Abbey had finally been liberated by the Canadian Army. First, they found the body of Lieutenant Thomas Windsor. Some of the bodies were found by the villagers around the premises. Examinations of the remains revealed that the soldiers had either been shot or bludgeoned directly in the head. After the discovery, their bodies were properly buried.

Further investigations concluded that the soldiers were shot during the evening on June 7th, and on the following day. In addition to the 20 confirmed cases, two more Canadian soldiers are believed to have suffered the same fate on June 17th, also on the premises of the Abbey, but their bodies were never found.

Kurt Meyer. By Wikipedia / Bundesarchiv CC-BY-SA 3.0
Kurt Meyer. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

After a year of investigation, in the period between 1944 and 1945, the Canadian War Crimes Commission, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Macdonald, managed to put together the pieces of who was responsible for the murders.

Kurt Meyer remained the prime suspect. The Ardenne Abbey massacre was only one of several war crimes of which Meyer was accused. In total, five charges were laid against him in relation to the Ardenne Abbey massacre:

  1. Inciting and advising soldiers under his command to refuse quarter to Allied troops.
  2. Commanding his troops to kill 23 POWs at or near the villages of Buron and Authie on 7th of June 1944.
  3. Commanding his troops, on 8th of June 1944, to kill seven prisoners of war at the Abbaye Ardenne, and as a result of such orders, the prisoners were shot and killed.
  4. (Alternative to the third charge) Responsibility for the killing of seven Canadian POWs at the Abbaye Ardenne on 8th of June 1944.
  5. Ordering the killing of 11 Canadian POWs at the Abbaye Ardenne on 7th June 1944.
Meyer (right) with SS high ranking officers Fritz Witt and Max Wunsche. By Wikipedia/ Bundesarchiv CC-BY-SA 3.0
Meyer (right) with SS high ranking officers Fritz Witt and Max Wunsche in Caen, 1944. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

One of the main witnesses to the case was the SS Private Alfred Helzel, who confirmed to the Canadian authorities that he and other soldiers under Meyer’s command were given orders not to take prisoners. However, Helzel withdrew his claim in court but was later convinced to confirm it again. Citizens of the towns of Authie and Buron testified against the 12th SS and to the various atrocities committed against Canadian soldiers.

Various Canadian soldiers also testified, and most important among them was Private Stanley Dudka. He was taken a prisoner and witnessed the German military police pick ten random prisoners who were later taken to an unknown location. Among the ten men was Private Moss, whose body was identified in Ardenne Abbey.

The central witness in the case was Jan Jesionek, a Polish soldier who had been pressed into service by the Wehrmacht. Jesionek confirmed that he overheard Meyer say to his fellow officer: “What should we do with these prisoners; they only eat up our rations?” They settled on the “no prisoners” policy afterwards. Jesionek then saw each prisoner being questioned and led to the garden of the Abbey.

The soldiers were shot in the back of their heads, one by one, as they finished questioning. This was done to six prisoners. Jesionek and three fellow drivers examined the bodies after execution, all lying in the garden and surrounded by blood.

According to Jesionek, the Canadians realized what was happening, each prisoner shaking hands with his comrades before walking to the garden and being shot. Uncertainty over Meyer’s commands remained since Jesionek never heard Meyer give the order to kill the Canadians.

Meyer defended himself, claiming he had no knowledge of the executions. He said that he had seen the bodies in the garden two days after they were shot. By his own testimony, he was disgusted and ordered the bodies to be buried.

He also claimed that he even tried to punish the ones who killed the Canadians, but was unsuccessful in conducting the punishment. These claims were refuted by French teenagers, however, who lived in the Abbey and testified that no bodies were visible in the garden when they went there the day after the murders.

Meyer was found guilty of inciting his troops to commit murder and of being responsible as a commander for the killings that happened in Ardenne Abbey. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Kurt Meyer was set free on 7th September 1954, after serving nine years in prison in Canada.

Ardenne Abbey memorial. By Burtonne CC BY-SA 3.0
Ardenne Abbey Memorial. By Burtonne – CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1984, a monument was erected for the victims of the Ardenne Abbey massacre. The inscription, followed by the names of those killed, reads:

“IN MEMORIAM. ON THE NIGHT OF 7-8 JUNE 1944, EIGHTEEN CANADIAN SOLDIERS WERE MURDERED IN THIS GARDEN WHILE BEING HELD HERE AS PRISONERS OF WAR. TWO MORE PRISONERS DIED HERE, OR NEARBY, ON 17 JUNE 1944. LEST WE FORGET.”

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Justice Chambers Personified the Marines in the Pacific in WWII

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P.Colonel Justice M. Chambers February 2, 1908-July 29, 1982. 

Marines storm ashore at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

During the vicious battle of Iwo Jima, 27 men were awarded the Medal of Honor for inexplicable acts of gallantry to capture a mere 8 square mile of volcanic rock. It was one of the costliest and bloodiest battles of WWII, and its importance to the legacy of the Marine Corps cannot be understated. To this day Marines make a pilgrimage to the island. They climb Mt. Suribachi and often leave their dog tags or rank insignias on the mountain in honor of what was accomplished during the brutal campaign. On Iwo Jima “uncommon valor was a common virtue” – much of it was due to ordinary men like Justice Chambers completing extraordinary acts of bravery.

Primed to Lead in Combat

Justice Chambers was born on February 2, 1908, in Huntington, WV near the Kentucky border. Not initially set on a military career, he studied at university in Washington D.C. graduating with a law degree. He also enrolled in the Naval Reserve. Feeling civilian life did not offer a challenge, in the early 1930s he joined the Marines as a private. In 1932 he received an Officer’s commission and by 1940 when the 5th Battalion was called up he had achieved the rank of Major.

Chambers was involved in the action in the Solomon and Mariana Islands. In both campaigns, he was seriously wounded, but continued to lead his troops. His leadership was so prominent he was awarded the Legion of Merit.

The planners of the invasion of Iwo Jima thought the fight across the beaches would be relatively quick as Iwo had “good” beaches. Those beaches became what one reporter called a “nightmare in hell.” What they did not expect were 15-foot dunes of soft black volcanic ash that the America Amtracks could not climb and which became a slog for the Marines. The Japanese waited for the beaches to become jammed with soldiers and equipment and then opened fire. Raining down a counterattack of mortar and artillery, were it not for the leadership of Marines like Justice Chambers all could have been lost.

Justice Chambers

Assault the Hill

On February 19, 1945, Chambers was the commanding officer of the 3rd Assault Battalion Landing Team, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division. Staring up at Mt. Suribachi as they approached in the landing craft, Chambers knew they were in for a fight as they were attacking directly beneath the enemy high ground. The Japanese artillery was dug into the mountain, and they were firing at the Americans with lethal accuracy.

Chambers knew the troops would have to attack. In the face of overwhelming firepower that would kill close to 50% of the 3rd Battalion and half the officers, his actions were “essential to the success of the D-Day [Iwo Jima] operations”. When they landed the Japanese were relentlessly shelling the beach with artillery and mortar fire, while embedded infantry rained down machine-gun and rifle fire. Americans were being killed in astonishing numbers.

Chambers reacted immediately. Under fire and in the open, he rallied the surviving troops and charged toward the cliffs. For the next 8 hours, he gathered the men time and again all the while leading from the front.

The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

The Medal of Honor

Charging up the hill to flank the enemy position, they drove the Japanese off but at a heavy cost. By the time the hill was taken, Chambers had lost most of his key officers. Disregarding his own safety he gathered what was left of his unit back together to attack the enemy’s main line of defense. Chambers attacked a rocket platoon with complete disregard for his own safety. The Japanese soldiers returned fierce firepower in his direction.

Critically wounded, he was evacuated under heavy fire. The men showed great respect for their leader who had gotten them so far. Chamber’s leadership that day “was directly instrumental” in the victory of the 5th Amphibious Corps. During the battle his heroism and complete lack of concern for his own safety, no doubt saved the lives of numerous Marines on the beaches of Iwo Jima.

For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor and the respect of every Marine. The battle of Iwo Jima lasted from February 19 to March 26, 1945. It was five weeks of bloody, ferocious combat and will forever be engrained in the American psyche and the United States Marine Corps.

Due to the leadership of men like Justice Chambers, many more Marines returned home to tell their story first-hand.

Staff Sergeant William Bordelon: First US Marine from Texas to be awarded MOH

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P.Staff Sergeant William Bordelon  December 25,1920 – November 20,1943 KIA Tarawa.

“Tarawa, South Pacific, 1943” painting by Sergeant Tom Lovell, USMC

Were it not for the epic battles fought there, many people would likely have gone through their lives never having heard of any of the small Pacific islands. The Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands is such a place.

During WWII, due to its strategic location, it was host to all sorts of military activity. Japan made Korean laborers work hard to fortify the main island of Betio emplacing nearly 500 machine-gun pillboxes which were manned by over 2,600 soldiers. To dislodge the seemingly small sized force from the tiny 2-mile long island, it took the combined efforts of some 35,000 US troops. Among them was Marine William Bordelon.

Duty

William James Bordelon was born on Christmas Day, 1920 in San Antonio Texas. He enlisted in the Marines on December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack out of a sense of duty. Displaying maturity and the ability to lead, Bordelon quickly rose to the rank of sergeant. By the time the Battle of Tarawa commenced, he was an assault engineer whose responsibilities included battlefield construction and demolition. His skills were an asset to his fellow Marines. To the Japanese defending the island, he would help bring about their undoing.

The Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 occurred at the beginning of America’s attempt to take back the Pacific from the Japanese. The architects of the landing had planned their tactics, and it was time to test their strategies. All did not go as planned.

An M4 Sherman rests in the lagoon.

They miscalculated the tide, failing to realize that the position of the moon caused a neap tide that made the sea too shallow for their landing craft to get over the coral. After the successful but costly Guadalcanal Campaign, it was the first time the Americans faced a ferocious opposition to their amphibious assault. Only the amtracks reached the beach and many, including the tanks going ashore, were hit by fierce gunfire or sank in holes in the coral made by the naval bombardment before the battle. The lack of men, supplies and heavy fire support left the troops who reached the beach in dire circumstances. Staff Sergeant and Marine engineer William Bordelon rose to the occasion and earned his place in the US Marines history.

Leaping Into Action

The battle was quickly turning into a disaster. They were pinned down by searing and accurate machine-gun fire from the Japanese fortifications, and it became evident the US naval bombardment had largely failed.

All but four of the men from Bordelon’s landing craft were dead. The ocean was turning red from blood as bullets riddled the waves above the coral. Bordelon knew the pillboxes had to be destroyed. Pinned on the beach, he hurriedly made demolition charges as the incredible noise of combat raged around him. He took the first set of charges and hurled himself over the embankment, then charged toward the enemy machine-gun fire. Slinging the charge inside the first pillbox, he heard the explosion as he ran to the next one. While under heavy fire with what seemed like remarkable ease he also destroyed it.

Japanese 8-inch gun emplacement on Tarawa.

Bordelon’s success had cut the hailstorm of enemy gunfire, and again with a third charge, he attacked another pillbox. He was hit by enemy machine-gun fire, and the charge exploded in his hand. With his adrenaline pumping and critically wounded Bordelon made it back to the beach. There he found a rifle and provided covering fire for a group of Marines climbing the seawall. Disregarding his own injuries, he retrieved a wounded fellow demolition man and another Marine from the ocean. Bordelon then began constructing demolition charges and again single-handedly assaulted a fourth machine-gun pillbox but died instantly from a withering burst of machine-gun fire.

A Due Honor

The Battle of Tarawa was one of the most bloody battles ever fought on such a small piece of land in the Pacific. It ended with an American victory, but a costly and controversial one. Almost all the Japanese defenders were killed with only 17 captured. Over 1,000 Marines died, and over 2,000 were wounded. In America, people asked whether the tiny parcel of land was worth it.

William Bordelon was the first US Marine from the state of Texas to earn a Medal of Honor in WWII. He rests at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. He was just 22 years old when he died, but his name lived on. In 1945 the destroyer DD-881 was named the USS Bordelon and was part of the occupation of Japan after the war. San Antonio’s Navy-Marine Corps Reserve Center is also named after him. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

The Tragedy of Lieutenant General Lesley McNair: The Highest Ranking US Soldier Killed in WWII

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H/T War History OnLine.

I do not remember hearing much about General Lesley McNair.

Left: McNair as Army Ground Forces commander, circa 1942. Right: US Army soldiers and jeeps on their way to the front lines, Saint-Lô, France, July 1944.

Lieutenant General Lesley McNair never had the historical reputation he deserved. He never got to sit down in a comfortable chair, brandy at his elbow, and compose his memoirs. McNair never got to have the full trappings of a state funeral in his honor. Nor did his fellow Generals and West Point graduates give him glowing eulogies.

McNair never had any of those things because he was blown to smithereens by the US Airforce during Operation Cobra in a friendly fire incident that also left 136 American soldiers dead and over 500 wounded.

McNair was born in 1883 and served during both world wars. He graduated from the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, in 1904 and became a Field Artillery officer.

By the time WWI broke out, McNair was serving as the assistant chief of staff for training with the 1st Division before becoming chief of artillery training with the American Expeditionary Forces. The role laid the groundwork for his pioneering reforms that sent ripples throughout the United States Army during WWII. An indication of his talent and skill within higher command was illustrated when McNair was made Brigadier General at the age of 35 – the youngest general officer the Army had at the time.

During WWII the American forces were able to defeat the Germans with brute force. However, there was also a more thought out process behind their tactics that was primarily due to McNair’s input.

From 1940 until shortly before his death, McNair was in charge of training and organizing ground forces. He developed a program that enabled every man that went through basic training to meet the demands of combat. It was not easy turning civilians into professional killing machines, but McNair pulled it off.

McNair as an AEF brigadier general, 1919.

 

In order to do so, he used a training regime that was as realistic as possible. He began by teaching the wannabe troops basic skills before transferring them to small unit training and then division training. It allowed the Army to give them a grounding in the everyday skills needed to be a soldier before progressing to more specialized skills.

McNair and George S. Patton, commander of I Armored Corps review map during training exercise at Desert Training Center, 1942.

The new doctrines permitted the forces to modernize and perform well on the battlefield, especially in the face of a more mobile enemy. However, McNair was astute enough to realize that tanks and aircraft would not be the kings of the modern age.

The Minnesota native placed great importance on balance in his combat forces to include the perfect mixture of infantry, armor, and artillery. Instead of trying to copy the Germans at the height of their success, McNair believed the infantry was the backbone of the Army while other types of units should be used to support or exploit their success.

McNair was deployed to the European Theater in 1944. He was picked to lead the fictional First Army in a ploy to trick Nazi commanders and hide the real location and invasion plan for France. He went to observe troops in action during Operation Cobra.

Allied forces used heavy bombers to support grounds troops during the invasion of France. Unfortunately, there were two deadly incidences of friendly fire.

US Army soldiers and jeeps on their way to the front lines, Saint-Lô, France, July 1944.

The first was on July 24. 1,600 aircraft flew over American heads in poor visibility. Although some were recalled and others declined to release their bombs, it resulted in 25 dead and 131 wounded men.

The incident that killed the General occurred the next day with similar horrific results. Instead of shelling east to west as requested, 1,800 planes from the 8th Air Force made their attack from north to south and over Allied lines.

111 US soldiers were killed and 490 wounded. It is said that McNair’s body was hurled 80 feet into the air and could only be recognized by the three stars found on one shoulder. It should never had happened particularly after the deaths occurring the day before due to friendly fire.

McNair was never a war hero. He never received the accolades of his comrades who led the liberation of Europe but he played an incredibly important role in the war and should be remembered for such.

This German Flying Ace Saved an American Pilot; Years Later They Found Each Other Again

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H/T War History OnLine.

This is an amazing story.

Top-Left: Boeing B-17F of the 95th Bomb Group with damage to the No. 3 engine. Bottom-Left: Bf 109 G-6, 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-662-6659-37 / Hebenstreit / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Right: German training model on how to attack a “flying porcupine”. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-657-6304-24 / Meschke / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Humanity can sometimes manifest itself in the most amazing ways and the unlikeliest of places. Take the case of the pilot who shot down another, only to help his victim get back to safety.

Ludwig Franz Stigler was born on August 21, 1915, in Regensburg, Germany. He idolized his father, Franz, who had been a reconnaissance pilot during WWI. He, therefore, chose to be called by his middle name.

His father and a friend started a gliding school for local children. Gliders were used because Germany was not allowed other aircraft after losing to the Allies. As a result, the young Stigler first flew in 1927 at the age of 12.

His glider crashed, but it was not his fault. His father had forgotten to add a counter balance to compensate for his son’s weight. It did not matter – Stigler was unhurt. Despite his unscheduled landing, he became hooked on flying.

At 17, Stigler began training for the priesthood until he was caught with the local brew master’s daughter. He was sent off to university to obtain a degree in aeronautical engineering.

The US 8th Air Force bombing the Focke-Wulf factory in Marienburg, Germany in 1943.

Bored with academics, he dropped out to focus on flying. He worked for Lufthansa as an airline pilot for four years. In 1935 Nazi Germany gave up any pretense of following the Versailles Treaty by openly rearming and rebuilding its military.

Stigler was ordered to train pilots for the military. He also flew regular missions to supply the Franco regime during the Spanish Civil War. Stigler enjoyed being a flight instructor and got a thrill in 1939 when he trained his older brother.

In October 1940 his brother was shot down by the enemy. Stigler had been somewhat detached from the war, but his brother’s death made it personal. Desperate for revenge, he set off for Africa in 1942 and worked under the command of Gustav Roedel (credited with 37 kills).

Stigler made his first kill on May 31, and by April 1943, he had shot down 17 Allied planes – earning himself a place with the Jagdgeschwader (fighter band) 27. August found him back in Germany flying Messerschmitt Bf 109s against Allied bombing raids – further intensifying his hatred of the enemy.

Charles “Charlie” Lester Brown was born on October 24, 1922, in West Virginia. He enlisted in the US Army just a few days shy of his 17th birthday on October 19, 1939, and by April 16, 1942, he was a commissioned 2nd Lieutenant.

B-17F formation over Schweinfurt, Germany, 1943.

By 1943 Brown was a B-17F pilot with the 379th Bombardment Group stationed at the Royal Air Force (RAF) Kimbolton, England. Later that year, he was assigned to the Ye Olde Pub bomber plane of the 527th Bombardment Squadron.

On December 20 Brown and his crew of nine men flew to Germany on their very first bombing mission. Their target was an aircraft factory in Bremen.

The bomber did not fly alone but was part of a large convoy including escort fighters to maximize the damage. It was assigned to the Purple Heart Corner (on the edge of the formation), which was dangerous because it made an easy target for German fighter planes.

Sure enough, German flak found them before they had released their load. The Plexiglas nose shattered as bullets destroyed their number two and four engines, forcing the bomber to fall out of formation. They were sitting ducks.

More German fighters dove in for the kill – damaging their number three engine, internal oxygen, and wreaking havoc on the hydraulic and electric systems. The plane was barely responding to controls, and several guns had jammed.

Most of the crew had been hit, including Brown in his right shoulder. Sergeant Hugh “Ecky” Eckenrode, the tail gunner, had been decapitated. Despite flying as part of a squadron, no help was available. The other aircraft were busy fighting off the Germans or releasing their bombs over the target.

Bf 109 G-6, 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-662-6659-37 / Hebenstreit / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Stigler was ecstatic. He had already downed 27 enemy planes. All he needed was three more to earn the coveted Knight’s Cross. As soon as his plane was refueled, he took off.

As he got closer to the stricken bomber, he remembered what Roedel had told him: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself!”

Stigler could see the faces of the frightened and wounded Americans. In a later interview, he claimed to have had an epiphany; he thought that must have been what his brother looked like before he died.

As the bomber’s radio was broken, Stigler signaled Brown to land his plane at a German airfield where they would receive medical care as POWs. Failing that, they could fly to neutral Sweden, but Brown did not understand. He ordered his dorsal turret gunner to aim at the German, but not to fire.

Stigler flew over the stricken bomber’s left wing to prevent other German fighters from shooting at them – thereby risking a court martial for treason. Once over the coast and out of German airspace, he saluted Brown and returned to his base.

Brown and his crew made it back to England with the loss of only one man. He reported the incident to his superiors who told him to keep quiet about it. Nice Germans!? Bad for morale. Brown never forgot, however. Neither did Stigler who often wondered if the Americans survived.

Brown spent the next several decades looking for Stigler, who had moved to Canada. The two met again on June 21, 1990, in Seattle, Washington.

Brown could not stop saying, “Thank you.”

Overcome, Stigler responded, “I love you, Charlie.”

Vera Atkins: Incredibly Brave British SOE Squadron Officer of World War Two

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H/T War History OnLine.

Vera Atkins was an incredible woman.

Early in WWII, the Germans were marching through Europe, and Britain was next. On July 16, 1940, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, declared, “Set Europe ablaze!” Thus was born the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to do just that.

Vera Maria Rosenberg was born on June 16, 1908, in Galați, Romania to a German-Jewish father and a British-Jewish mother. She studied languages at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris and went to finishing school in Switzerland before training to be a secretary in London.

Sadly, her father went bankrupt in 1932 and died shortly after, forcing her to return to Romania. By 1937, however, Romania’s new government were markedly pro-German and anti-Semitic. Being a smart woman, Rosenberg decided she was probably better off back in Britain. She began using her mother’s maiden name around that time.

Her gilded life had served a purpose, however. Her family’s wealth had enabled her to mingle with the upper crust – including several European diplomats. In 1940 she traveled to the Netherlands with money to bribe an Officer from the German military intelligence or Abwehr.

Squadron Officer Vera Atkins in 1946.

Her cousin was anxious to escape German-occupied Romania and needed a passport. With help from the Belgian resistance, she got her cousin out and made her way back to Britain. Atkins involvement in the escape was only discovered after she died when a British reporter investigated her life – a reflection of just how secretive she was.

She worked for a time as a translator and an oil company before joining the SOE as a secretary in 1941.

Churchill wanted to set Europe ablaze with sabotage operations to give Britain a fighting chance. Atkins’ language skills, intelligence, and composure got her a promotion – assistant to section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster.

Secret radio service of the Abwehr. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0157 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Buckmaster lead the SOE’s French and Belgian section. Between 1941 and 1944, he smuggled 366 agents into France. There they financed and armed the French resistance for sabotage operations and gathered intelligence on the Nazi occupiers. They paid a high price – 118 agents died. Despite knowing the risks, they all volunteered to go.

Atkins played a major role in choosing who went. Once satisfied they stood a chance, she escorted them to the Tempsford airstrip in Bedfordshire and waved them off as they flew across the Channel. It was not easy. Atkins later claimed that it caused her enormous stress to realize she was likely sending them off to their deaths.

Among them were 37 women trained as couriers and wireless operators. Atkins’ job included ensuring they were appropriately clothed; giving them proper documentation; making sure they knew their target area well; seeing to it their families received their pay, and sending coded messages via the BBC so agents in the field knew how their families were doing.

Sadly, the SOE made mistakes, especially in the early years. Henri Déricourt was an SOE agent and former French Air Force Pilot who flew the agents into France. He may also have been a Nazi double agent. Whatever the case, the Germans captured SOE agents, sent false information back to Britain, and even defrauded the SOE of money and supplies.

Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan in 1943, one of Atkins agents who died in a concentration camp and was posthumously awarded a George Cross.

Despite the warning signs, Buckmaster refused to believe his spy network had been compromised. In March 1941, the Abwehr forced a captured SOE radio operator to send misinformation back to his headquarters. He did so but also transmitted a code which meant he had been captured and was under duress. It made no difference.

Buckmaster accepted the information as valid, ignoring the extra code. As such, he received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) award and the French Croix de Guerre after the war. It was also after the war, however, that he realized how badly he had let the SOE be compromised and how many people he had sent to their deaths.

While he could let it go, Atkins could not. By February 1944, she had become a British citizen and denied ever having made any errors in the SOE, stressing the agents were volunteers. She joined the British War Crimes Commission to gather evidence for the prosecution of war criminals.

After the war she visited concentration camps and interrogated guards, attempting to find out what had happened to the 118 missing persons she had sent off. Hugo Bleicher, the Abwehr officer who had broken most of the SOE agents, claimed she was the most formidable interrogator he had ever met.

Atkins even questioned Rudolf Hess, Commandant of Auschwitz. Asked if he was responsible for killing 1.5 million Jews, Hess replied no. The correct figure, he insisted, was 2,345,000. He was convicted at the Nuremberg Trials.

The SOE Memorial in Valençay in 2011. Photo: Fabrice Dury / Own work / CC-BY 3.0

In 1947 she was told the SOE was to be disbanded, and her search could no longer be funded. Using her contacts in MI6 (British Military Intelligence, Section 6), she obtained funding to continue her work.

She continued searching through documents, claiming she “could not just abandon their memory.” Atkins went on to explain “I was probably the only person who could do this. You had to know every detail of the agents, names, code-names, every hair on their heads, to spot their tracks.”

Although she never found them all, her work became the basis of the Roll of Honor at the Valençay SOE Memorial unveiled on May 6, 1991, in Loire, France. It lists 91 men and 13 women who gave their lives to free the French and may have given Atkins some peace when she finally passed away on June 24, 2000.

“I guess they didn’t know I was a Marine” – Heroism and Honor at Guadalcanal

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P. PFC  Edward Henry Ahrens  November 4, 1919-Guadalcanal August 8, 1942.

US Marines during the Guadalcanal Campaign in August 1942.

Despite being the smallest of America’s Armed Forces, the US Marine Corps are considered the cream of the crop. There is a good reason for this as each member is almost a one man army which many have proven over the years.

One such man was Edward Henry Ahrens who was born on November 4, 1919, in Dayton, Kentucky. After graduating from high school, he got a job with the Wadsworth Watch Case Company.

Life dramatically changed for him when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It forced America into a war it had tried very hard to avoid. Rather than wait to be conscripted, Ahrens went to Cincinnati, Ohio to join the US Marine Corps on February 3, 1942.

First, he went to South Carolina for boot camp training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. No doubt impressed that a watch case maker had not only survived their process but had also passed it, he was then sent to the Marine Barracks Quantico in Virginia on March 16, 1942. He did not stay there for long.

Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbor out of any desire to conquer the US. It wanted an empire in the Pacific which meant capturing islands belonging to the US and various European countries.

Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Within hours of destroying the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, they attacked the American territories of the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island. They also invaded the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. By February 1942, they were bombing northern Australia.

As America was not the military superpower it is today, at first it fought a defensive war. As a result, Japan’s victory over the Pacific seemed inevitable. Until Operation Watchtower was launched.

Japanese air raid on Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia on February 19, 1942.

Better known today as the Battle of Guadalcanal (or the Guadalcanal Campaign), its original goal was to take only the island of Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands. Japan had captured it on May 3, 1942, and used it to threaten Allied supply routes and communication lines between the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

By the summer, America’s vast resources and industrial might came into play. On August 7, the US went on the offensive for the first time when it attacked not just Tulagi, but also the islands of Gavutu-Tanambogo, Guadalcanal, and Florida in the southern Solomon Islands. With the support of ships from the Navies of Australia and New Zealand, the US 1st Marine Division landed on the beaches.

US Marines making their way to the beaches of Tulagi on August 7, 1942

Company C, 1st Raider Battalion had taken and secured the right flank of the beachhead. Ahrens was with Company A, 1st Raider Battalion, Fleet Marine Force aboard the USS Little(APD-4) as part of the second assault team. To their surprise, they met with very little opposition.

The Marines made their way down the right slope of the island’s central ridge. It was terrain they knew well as Tulagi had been British territory until the Japanese had decided otherwise.

Company A’s target was a former British government building which they intended to use as their Raider command post. Being British, of course, it had a cricket field overlooking a ridge. Private First Class Ahrens’ job was to defend it. His team fanned out and prepared its defenses.

The Japanese launched their counter attack later that evening. They tried to drive a wedge between the two companies, forcing C company to stay where it was while they focused their main attack on Ahren’s group. Their goal was to make their way up the ridge, sweep through the cricket grounds, and take the new Raider command post. Or so they hoped.

Map of the landings and fighting on Tulagi. By Memnon335bc – CC BY 3.0

Ahrens was part of a security detachment guarding the Raiders’ right flank when the attack came. The fighting was so close that guns quickly became useless and it devolved into a melee of hand-to-hand combat.

It was Major Lewis William “Lew” Walt who found Ahrens the following morning. The 22-year-old private was slumped in a foxhole covered with blood; but that is not what amazed Walt.

With Ahrens were two Japanese bodies – one a lieutenant while the other was a sergeant. In Ahrens’ hand was a Japanese sword belonging to an officer. Around the foxhole were 11 more corpses; all Japanese.

Japanese officers and petty officers of the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force. They took Tulagi in May 1942, and most were killed during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

The Kentucky native had been stabbed and shot several times, but to Walt’s even greater surprise, Ahrens, who weighed a mere 140 pounds was still alive. Jumping in, Walt tried to do what he could, but he knew it was too late.

The major cradled Ahrens in his arms, pleading with him to lie still until help came, promising that everything would be alright. He knew it was a lie; there was far too much damage and blood loss.

With a final gasp, Ahrens whispered, “They tried to come over me last night – I guess they didn’t know I was a Marine.”

The USS Ahrens in the Atlantic.

He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and credited with killing the officer in command of the attack, as well as two others. The following year, they also named a destroyer escort after him; the USS Ahrens (DE-575).

It would have made the private proud to know that on May 29, 1944, the USS Ahrens rescued 673 people from two ships sunk by German U-boats. She also protected merchant ships throughout the rest of the war, ensuring the flow of goods to where they were most needed.

Equally important, however, was the fact that the Guadalcanal Campaign was a success. It was also the turning point in the Pacific Theater, forcing Japan to go on the defensive.

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