August 1940. Britain faces German invasion. A race is on to wreck Hitler’s plans led by RAF Bomber Command. Two aqueducts, huge water bridges on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, along which the Germans are bringing invasion barges and supplies to the Channel coast, are identified as crucial to stopping Hitler. Can they be destroyed? A motley collection of daredevil British and Australian airmen are ordered to try, including Guy Gibson of later Dambusters fame. They are in a race against time, for every day that the aqueducts remain standing, the Germans gather to invade. At the same time, the British race to develop a new kind of bomb that can be dropped on the aqueducts, and scientists face almost insurmountable technical and obstacles. By mid-August 1940 eleven aircrews, flying old, slow and poorly armed Hampden bombers, have completed training for the raid. On the night of 12 August they launch from Lincolnshire, split into an attacking and diversionary force. They face desperate odds against a huge concentration of German flak guns, enemy night fighters and searchlights, and must fly suicidally low, slow and level to release the new bombs.
In a raid with many similarities in personnel, target and weapon to the much more famous Dambusters Raid of 1943, the plucky band of outnumbered and outgunned airmen press home their assault on the aqueducts. If they fail, the Germans will probably be landing on the coast of southern England within a few weeks, but if they succeed, they may change the course of history and help to save their country from invasion and occupation. This is the untold and completely forgotten story of ‘The Bridge Busters’, the first Dambusters and their suicide mission just before the Battle of Britain began.
I was barely able to contain my excitement and astonishment when I came upon a 19th century British naval gun in the midst of a drab, rain-soaked and freezing cold Chinese town in November 2012. I was probably the first military historian to lay eyes on this extraordinary survivor that had silently guarded the bay for 128 years. This gun was only the beginning of an extraordinary morning of discoveries.
Zhapu is the traditional gateway to western Zhejiang Province and China’s richest region and the town is a small, semi-industrial fishing port surrounded by green tree-covered hills looking out over the East China Sea located about an hour’s drive south of Shanghai. I came seeking relics of the First Opium War (1839-42) when Zhapu (then called Chapoo) had been bombarded and then invaded by British forces. I found much more than I ever thought possible.
The first line of defence in 1842 had been a series of coastal forts that had been constructed as far back as 1717 to protect Zhapu’s port. Such has been the rapid modernization and development of China over the past thirty years that most historical sites have been swept away. But, by some fluke of history, the remnants of a coastal defence position survived on a small promontory overlooking Zhapu’s fishing boats. Even more extraordinary was what I discovered inside the now roofless sandstone battery – a fully intact British Armstrong naval gun still pointing forlornly out to sea.
The extravagantly named ‘Tian Fei Palace’, as locals call the battery, is in actuality a wrecked Opium War-era fort. On the afternoon of the 17 May 1842, the 72-gun HMS Cornwallis had led eleven other assorted British warships and transports commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir William Parker into Zhapu Bay and anchored. At daybreak on the following day, the ships landed 2,220 soldiers, sailors and Royal Marines. HMS Blondeand Cornwallis attacked the Chinese sea batteries. When I walked around to the front of the Tian Fei Palace fort, huge cannon ball holes were still clearly visible – the entire fort’s surface heavily pitted and scarred with this historical battle damage. In 1842 three masked gun batteries with thirty cannon crowned the hill behind the port. HMS Sesostris, a 4-gun steamer, dispersed the Chinese troops with shells as the British forces advanced. British troops and Royal Marines stormed ashore and the Chinese defenders largely took to their heels. The Naval Brigade under Captain Francis Bourchier took possession of the batteries before the Chinese could ignite mines that they had placed beneath them.
Today the Tian Fei Palace’s cannonball-scarred façade is almost lost among ranks of rusty fishing trawlers and dredgers tied up in rows before the casements. The present gun is a later addition, and proved difficult to positively identify as a steel fence has been erected to keep people away from the fort’s interior. The moulding at the gun’s muzzle suggests an early Rifled, Muzzle Loading (RML) 64-pounder (roughly 6.3-inch), built by the Elswick Ordnance Company (as Armstrong was originally called) and it sits on a damaged naval mounting. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the maker’s plate or stamps to confirm this provenance, though the weapon’s size and overall design leaves little alternative conclusion.
The 64-pounder Mark I gun entered British service in 1864, and there were Mark II and III versions, the last incorporating wrought-iron inner “A” tubes surrounded by wrought-iron coils. The Chinese could have purchased this weapon second-hand from the British, or it could have been old Elswick stock as the Chinese record the 64-pounder as having being emplaced at the Tian Fei Palace fort in 1884. Originally, there were ten RML 64-pounders, but all that remains today are three gun positions, the aforementioned Elswick gun and a pair of much earlier muzzle-loading cannon of unknown origin.
The Tian Fei Palace’s purpose was coastal defence, and the RML 64-pounder was an effective anti-ship weapon. The Chinese wanted to prevent any future re-run of the events of May 1842. The muzzle velocity of the Mark I gun was 1,252 feet per second (382 metres per second) giving an effective range of 5,000 yards (4,600m), allowing complete coverage of the narrow approach channel to Zhapu port. Its anti-ship ammunition consisted of the “common shell”, 57.4 pounds (26kg) empty with a bursting charge of 7.1 pounds (3.2kg). Shrapnel shells could also be fired.
Unfortunately, the updating of the Tian Fei Palace fort’s defences in the 1880s came too late to save China from defeat in the First and Second Opium Wars, though by the time the British guns were being winched into place the so-called ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’ was in full swing, as China desperately tried to update its military and defend its coastline against any future foreign aggressors. But, by the time another enemy appeared the fort’s guns were long obsolete. In 1937, Japanese aircraft heavily bombed the Tian Fei Palace fort during their invasion of eastern China, collapsing the roof. Thereafter, the fort was completely abandoned by the Chinese and progressively demolished from the 1950s onwards. The other nine RML 64-pounders have been lost to history, though it is not inconceivable to suggest that one or two may still lurk somewhere close by, possibly in the harbour itself.
Although the last remaining gun has been exposed to the elements and particularly to salt spray for decades, it remains in remarkably good condition and worthy of restoration for museum display. At the moment, the local municipal government protects the fort and its rare gun, but if Zhapu port is modernized in the future this unique building and its surviving gun may yet be under threat.
The Zhapu RML 64-pounder can now be added to the list of surviving examples of this design. Several remain in the UK, a scattering in Australia and New Zealand, and six at Fort Siloso in Singapore. The Zhapu example may be the last in Mainland China – the only other examples can be found at Lei Yun Mun Fort on Hong Kong Island.
Another surviving example in perfect condition that I photographed at the Lei Yun Mun Fort on Hong Kong Island.
I was determined to try and track down some more neglected fortifications in the Zhapu area; in the hope of finding some more lost Armstrong guns. Speaking to the Tian Fei Palace fort’s old custodian, who seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would wish to visit the place, the author was told of another fort high up on one of the range of wooded hills behind the harbour. After an hour’s searching in torrential rain I eventually discovered Nan Wan Fort. An abandoned and vandalized house stood behind the emplacement, and the rest of the area had a feeling of forgotten desolation. Clearly, few people came up here from the residential areas a few hundred feet below.
Nan Wan Fort is a modern, Western-style single gun emplacement of sandstone construction. Sat between the magazine and the crew quarters bunkers was a very large breech-loading gun that was still sat on its naval mount, its barrel pointing out to sea between two wooded hills. Once, the gunners would have had a bird’s eye view of any ships entering or leaving Zhapu harbour, but now huge trees had been allowed to grow up completely obscuring the horizon and the ocean.
The Nan Wan Fort mounts what appeared at first glance to be an 1880 Armstrong 6-inch (120mm) Breech-Loading Gun. The breech screw was missing, but the naval mount was intact, incorporating a hydraulic recoil control and run out originally perfected by Josiah Vavasseur and bought up by the Elswick Ordnance Company in the 1880s. The 6-inch BL 80cwt gun, sometimes known as the 80-pounder, was a commercial design and some were bought by the British government, eventually replacing rifled muzzle loaders like the Tian Fei Palace’s RML 64-pounder. However, the 6-inch BL had an unsatisfactory breech sealing arrangement (obturation) called the “Elswick Cup”. A new ‘de Bange’ sealing arrangement was built into later marks of the gun.
Clambering up onto the gun mount, I was surprised to discover that this gun still proudly displays the maker’s plate not of Armstrong’s but of the Kiangnan Arsenal in Shanghai. Chinese characters announced that the 6-inch BL is a licence-built copy made during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor in 1888. The Kiangnan Naval Shipyard and Arsenal was established in 1865 as part of China’s ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’. China quickly acquired the knowhow to build licenced versions of Western armaments, particularly Krupp and Armstrong artillery, Mauser rifles and even small warships.
The Nan Wan gun emerged from the Shanghai-based Kiangnan Arsenal in 1888, only eight years after the gun was first introduced into Royal Navy service. The gun position at Nan Wan was also constructed in 1888, evidently specifically for the licence-built 6-inch BL.
One of the problems associated with early production 6-inch BLs, that weighed four tons, was their generally weak construction. Elswick overcame this by rebuilding guns already in British service with “chase hoops” around the 153 inch barrel for strengthening, and the barrel had been shortened by three inches to keep the centre of gravity on the trunnions. The gun was then redesignated the 81cwt Mk. 1. We see these modifications in the Kiangnan Arsenal copy at Nan Wan. Although the breech screw is missing from the Nan Wan gun, it was unusual in that it was rotated to the left to lock, whereas all other British designs of the period rotated to the right.
The Nan Wan gun would have been a formidable anti-ship weapon during its service. With a muzzle velocity of 1,880 feet per second (573 metres/second), the 6-inch BL could lob a Palliser, Shrapnel or common shell that weighed 80 pounds (36.29kg) up to 8,000 yards (7,300m). The Palliser was a new type of anti-ship shell popular in the 1870s and 1880s, the shell cavity filled with gunpowder instead of being empty to provide a small explosion after it had penetrated a vessel’s armour plating.
Few of the original Elswick built guns still exist. Four examples are in Australia, including one mounted on the flat-iron gunboat HMAS Protector in Birkenhead, South Australia, a vessel that ironically saw service in China during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The example at the Nan Wan fort may be the last licence-built copy in existence.
Nearly every inch of the gun has Chinese characters scratched into the metalwork – crude anti-foreign graffiti from the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s when even China’s copies of Western military equipment were trashed or ridiculed by Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. Judging by the damage inflicted, it is remarkable that this weapon remains in situ today. However, the degree of rust on the mount may on day cause the entire platform to collapse if it is left to the elements for many more years.
The Tian Fei Palace and Nan Wan Fort tell the story of China’s transformation from weak Empire to modern People’s Republic in stone and gunmetal, a transformation that witnessed China’s repeated and brutal invasion and its attempts to first resist and then to copy the technology of the belligerent powers. The two old Zhapu guns are an important part of this story, and worthy of restoration and preservation.
Adolf Hitler lived in several places during his childhood, due to his father Alois’ job in the Austrian Customs Service. In 1898, at the age of nine, Hitler and his family arrived in Leonding, a small town that today is practically a suburb of the Upper Austrian city of Linz.
Alois Hitler was by now retired after forty years of service to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but his attempt to farm at Lambach had ended in failure, hence the move to Leonding. This period was also marked by violent arguments between Alois and his oldest surviving son Adolf.
Alois purchased No. 16 Michaelsbergstrasse, a small, two-storey brick structure opposite the entrance to St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church. Both structures survive intact today. Adolf Hitler was a choirboy in the church and regularly attended mass.
The Hitler house, Leonding. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
The view of St. Michael’s Church from the Hitler house front door. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
It was in this house in 1900 that Hitler’s younger brother Edmund died from measles, an event that effected Adolf severely and turned him into a deeply morose and withdrawn boy.
Hitler aged 11 at school in Leonding
His detachment was further deepened by his father’s unwillingness to permit him to follow his dream of being an artist, and in September 1900 Alois enrolled him in the Realschule in Linz. Hitler’s father wanted Adolf to follow his footsteps into the Customs Service, an idea that repelled Adolf.
The side of the Hitler house. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
Adolf deliberately did badly at school in the hope that his father would transfer him to a classical high school, and the two had many heated and violent arguments. This impasse ended suddenly on 3 January 1903 when Alois Hitler suddenly dropped dead in a local Leonding pub. Adolf’s schoolwork deteriorated further until his doting mother Klara removed him from the institution. The family left Leonding for Steyr where Hitler’s grades improved at a new school.
The front door of the Hitler house. The doors and window frames all appeared to be original. Hitler would have passed through this door daily to school or church. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
The rear of the Hitler house in Leonding. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
Leonding was not quite done with the Hitler’s. Alois had been buried in St. Michael’s churchyard, and in December 1907 Klara Hitler succumbed to breast cancer. She was buried with her husband in Leonding on Christmas Eve 1907, with Hitler at the funeral.
View of the Hitler house from St. Michael’s Church. Young Hitler walked this way to sing in the church choir and to attend mass. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
Hitler returned again to Leonding under radically different circumstances on 12 March 1938, this time behind his army that was sweeping into Austria to complete the Anschluss.
Hitler paid his respects at his parents’ grave and also visited his childhood home, which became a place of Nazi pilgrimage.
Hitler visits his parents’ grave in 1938
A similar view in 2017. Hitler’s parents grave lies to the left of the photo, slightly out of shot. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
After 1945, the house was allowed to fall into disrepair until it was partially renovated and today is used to store empty coffins to the graveyard across the road. Hitler’s parents grave was clearly marked with their names and photographs until 2012, when the Church removed their headstone and remodelled the grave in an attempt to hide its existence from curious visitors.
‘An extraordinary, and largely forgotten, wartime story — brought back to life in this Boys’ Own account’ – Daily Mail
My thrilling new escape adventure CASTLE OF THE EAGLES is available in all good bookshops!
A dozen eccentric middle-aged British generals pulling off some of the most daring and amazing escapes of the war – a story so fresh and fascinating that Hollywood came for the movie rights before I even finished writing the book!
Vincigliata Castle, a menacing medieval fortress set in the beautiful Tuscan hills above Florence, has been turned into a very special prisoner of war camp on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s personal order. Perched high on a hill, the forbidding building holds 13 of the most senior British and Commonwealth officers captured during the campaigns in North Africa and Crete.
The 13 consist of an air marshal, twelve generals and brigadiers along with 11 aides and batmen. They are guarded by almost 200 Italian soldiers under the command of a hardened fascist answerable directly to Mussolini. It is imperative that some of these famous generals manage to get back into the war as soon as possible. The prisoners include the British commander in Egypt, the deputy commander of the RAF in the Middle East, the commander in Libya, and the general commanding the 2nd Armoured Division.
Campo 12, as the Italians call Vincigliata Castle, is considered escape proof, an Italian Colditz. But the Italians have not counted on the bravery, ingenuity and barefaced pluck of their illustrious prisoners. After several false starts, an extraordinary assemblage of middle-aged POWs hatches a complex escape plan. Short of food and facing almost insuperable challenges in finding escape materials, the prisoners, regardless of rank or age, all work together to drive a complex tunnel beneath the castle through its foundations and solid bedrock. It is a task that takes them six arduous and dangerous months to complete.
By March 1943 the tunnel is ready. The potential escapers have also spent months making civilian clothes, forging identity papers, gathering rations and even constructing elaborate human dummies to place in their beds to fool the guards during their nighttime inspections after they have escaped. It is decided that six men will attempt the impossible, forming three 2-man teams. One escaper is an air marshal, three are brigadiers, and two are lieutenant-generals, probably the unlikeliest collection of would-be prison breakers in history. Three of them are knights of the realm and two have won the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry. One is handicapped by a missing hand and eye, another by a gammy hip. The youngest is 48, the oldest 63.
During a dark and rain swept night, the three teams burst out of the earth below the castle and slip away, all intent on reaching neutral Switzerland. What follows are extraordinary adventures as the escapers go on the run inside Italy. Will any of them make to freedom?
Castle of the Eagles, written from official documents and personal memoirs, tells the thrilling full story of the extraordinary escape of the generals from Mussolini’s Colditz for the first time, a forgotten but almost unbelievable tale of courage and daring by the unlikeliest group of escapers in World War II.
Many people mistakenly believe that the famed Eagle’s Nest high up on Kehlstein Mountain overlooking Hitler’s mountain top hideaway on the Obersalzberg was his favourite tea house. The building survives perfectly intact today, and attracts over 200,000 tourists annually. But there is a reason for its survival.
Hitler hated it! Martin Bormann poured huge sums of money and time into its construction but ultimately Hitler was afraid of the altitude, the snaking road up and the elaborate lift that took visitors the final 400 feet through solid mountain to the summit. He only visited the place around ten times. For this reason, the building is perhaps less tainted by association with Hitler than the structures on the Obersalzberg, and was spared postwar demolition.
Hitler did have a favourite tea house, again another present from Bormann, but this time constructed at a lower altitude just a short walk from his palatial Berghof home and military headquarters. History has not been kind to this building, Hitler’s constant daily patronage ensuring that the US Army demolished it in the early 1950s and the Bavarian Government made further attempts to eradicate its footprint in the 2000s. However, much survives for those prepared to hike to the spot and root around a bit using one’s imagination and old photographs.
Hitler would visit the Mooslahnerkopf Teehaus almost every afternoon during his stays at the Berghof. It was a home from home for Hitler and his entourage and pandered to Hitler’s rather indolent home life with Eva Braun and his cronies.
Each afternoon around 3pm Hitler, members of his close circle and a small number of his RSD bodyguards would cross the road in front of the Berghof and enter a path than ran past the Unterwurflehen (Obersalzberg Administration Building) then stroll downhill through the Obersalzberg Valley and onto a path through the woods.
The ruins of the Unterwurflehen Building
The woodland path towards the Mooslahnerkopf
As his party entered the woods they would pass by SS guard bunkers for the sentries that monitored a discreet chain link fence below the path before arriving at the Mooslahnerkopf Hill and its tea house. Hitler hated being overtly guarded, so the sentries would most likely have not been seen.
A Moll Bunker or Splinter Protection Cell. These one-man bunkers were spaced out all over the Obersalzberg area. This one I photographed close to the tea house. It was designed to provide a sentry with cover in the event of an air raid, not to fight from.
The walk was less than a kilometre. The circular teahouse had been designed by architect Roderich Fick, who had remodelled the Haus Wachenfeld into the grand Berghof, on the orders of Martin Bormann as yet another gift for Hitler, as the ‘brown eminence’ sought to curry favour with his leader.
Designed in 1936, the building was completed the following year, and Bormann was rewarded by Hitler’s near constant patronage of the establishment whenever he was in residence on the Obersalzberg until early 1944.
The main part of the tea house was cylindrical in design, measuring 9 metres in diameter, with three large picture windows looking out over the valley beyond. The building was built onto the side of Mooslahnerkopf Hill and was accessed by a flight of steps up to a large door giving access to the main room.
The main room was dominated a large round table around which were arranged comfortable armchairs.
Hitler and Eva Braun. Unlike Hitler, Braun also regularly used the Eagle’s Nest for taking tea or holding parties
Hitler and Maria Reiter, rumoured to have been an old girlfriend, inside the circular room. This film still allows us a glimpse of the colours used to decorate the tea house
Other seating areas were located around the walls. A kitchen and staff area occupied the rest of the building. As with the Berghof and Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest), Hitler’s monogrammed silver service and cutlery was used by the SS waiters.
In front of the tea house was a scenic overlook of the Salzburg Basin, enclosed by a wooden railing and with a bench where the Führer often sat and discussed matters of state with his intimates. From the railing Hitler could look at Austria, his homeland, Salzburg Castle poking up through a break in the line of mountains in the far distance.
Mark at the Mooslahnerkopf Overlook. The railing was replaced by a German film company in 2004 and is higher than the original.
Hitler and his Alsation Blondi at the Overlook
The scenic overlook survives virtually intact while the tea house behind has been largely erased
The original bench that Hitler used is long gone. A modern replacement has been installed in the exact spot.
In this photo you can gain some idea of the luxurious interior and the height on the main circular room.
Hitler often fell asleep at the Mooslahnerkopf and was always driven back to the Berghof in an ordinary Volkswagen rather than one of his enormous armoured Mercedes, while the rest of his intimates strolled back on foot in the late afternoon.
The building survived the British bombing attack of 25 April 1945 that obliterated or severely damaged many of the Nazi structures on the Obersalzberg. In 1951-52 the US Army ordered its destruction, and it was partially demolished, leaving just the service areas and basement intact.
Mooslahnerkopf Tea House remains. (Copyright Hans J.S.C. Jongstra)
Then in August 2006 the basement level was torn out and removed, leaving only the building’s foundation and some stairs remaining today
Steps (above and below) in front of the vanished building that led down to the overlook area
The hillside where the tea house once stood. Note the same stand of trees on the left in both photos.
Chief Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita, the first man to bomb the United States from the air
How to bring the war to America was a question that the Japanese High Command gave considerable thought to between 1941 and 1945. Shore bombardment was tried, using surfaced Japanese submarines off the coast of California and British Columbia. Its effects were minimal. Tiny submarine launched spotter planes launched incendiary raids on the forest of the Pacific Northwest, again with little effect for a lot of effort. A massive effort was required to transport one very small aircraft across the Pacific on board a valuable submarine, to drop a tiny amount of bombs onto no specific target. At best it would have proved a propaganda coup had the United States authorities realized that Japan had successfully attacked the mainland, but no such media coverage was afforded.
Another munitions delivery system was required, and this time the Japanese decided upon an unmanned and ultra-cheap option: the paper balloon.
Once again, the Japanese required the initial utilization of their submarine force to attack the United States, and in 1943 two hundred balloons were prepared, to be launched from two modified submarines, the I-34 and I-35. Each balloon had a twenty-foot envelope, and a range of more than 600 miles. Although the operation was fully prepared by August 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy realized that employing submarines on such missions would not have been a sensible use of their potential, especially as the war had long since begun to deteriorate for Japan. The project was shelved, and balloon bomb research and the Imperial Japanese Army continued development instead. The army lacked the means to launch balloons from a mid-point between Japan and the United States, so the new weapons had to be designed to depart from the Japanese homeland itself.
The army balloon-bomb project was codenamed ‘FUGO’ (Windship Weapon), and the army designers at the 9th Military Technical Research Institute under Major-General Sueyoshi Kusaba, in cooperation with scientists of the Central Meteorological Observatory in Tokyo, produced a balloon design, designated the Type-A (not to be confused with the navy’s Type-A midget submarine), made of sixty-four laminated mulberry tree paper gores (sections forming the curved surface of the balloon). This was glued together with a form of potato paste forming a balloon envelope with a 100-foot circumference. The envelope was then filled with 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to provide the necessary high ceiling the weapon required. Below the envelope was suspended a woven dural ring with bombs and thirty-six ballast sandbags attached, controlled by three aneroid barometers and a C (small) battery mounted on a platform above which controlled a circuit to maintain altitude, and release the bombs.
Each balloon carried a payload of two 11-pound thermalite incendiary bombs, and one 33-pound anti-personnel fragmentation bomb. The Japanese called the new weapon fusen bakudan or ‘fire bombs’. Launch sites were located on the east coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, at Otsu, Ichinomiryu and Nakaso.
Once released, the balloons were uncontrollable, and carried to the North American continent at the behest of wind currents, cruising in the jet stream at around 20-40,000 feet. To maintain altitude, sand was automatically released from the ballast bags if the balloon began to sink. In the daytime the balloon would cruise at maximum altitude, but at night the envelope would collect dew, and sink as it became heavier. The altimeter would cause a set of blow plugs to fire, releasing sandbag ballast, restoring the balloon’s altitude. When all the sand was gone the bombs would become the final ballast, they being released automatically – an event calculated to occur over the mainland United States. Finally, a picric acid block would explode, destroying the balloon gondola; with a fuse being lit that was connected to a charge on the balloon itself. The resultant mixture of hydrogen, air and explosives would cause the balloon envelope to burn up as a large orange fireball. The balloons were extremely difficult to spot from the ground, because they cruised at such a high altitude, and most American fighter aircraft of the period could not reach them.
Diagram: Newcastle University
The first balloon launch occurred on 3 November 1944, with a US Navy patrol boat discovering a balloon floating in the sea sixty-six miles off San Pedro, California on 5 November. The first known successful attack on the United States occurred on 6 December 1944, bombs being dropped around twelve miles southwest of Owl Creek Mountain, close to Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Fragments of balloon envelopes and gondolas were discovered in Alaska and Montana, and forensic tests confirmed the wreckage to be of Japanese origin. The question was, how were the Japanese delivering the weapons to the United States? The people of the United States were not informed of the attacks, and the media was ordered not to report this alarming development. The United States also developed counter-measures to deal with this unique threat, codenamed ‘Operation Firefly.’ The US 4th Air Force gathered fighter squadrons to shoot down the balloons before they could release their payload, and many were downed over the Aleutian Islands before they could reach their targets as they sank to lower altitudes. One was shot down over Oregon. There was a fear among the American authorities that the Japanese could have used the balloons to deliver chemical and biological warfare agents to the United States, and to counter any such threat stocks of decontamination chemicals were quietly distributed to the western states, and farmers were asked to report any strange crop markings or animal infections that occurred. Although the United States authorities played down the potential damage that balloon bombs could wreak, Lyle Watts of the Agricultural Department commenting in June 1945 that, “…the forest service was “less worried about this Japanese balloon attack than we are with matches and smokes in the hands of good Americans hiking and camping in the woods,”” a US Army unit, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (nicknamed the ‘Triple Nickle’ because of their unit number) was trained to act as fire jumpers should the incendiary bombs set the forests ablaze.
Of the 9,300 balloons launched from Japan, only 212 were confirmed as having arrived in the United States and Mexico, landing as far east in the United States as Michigan, and a further seventy-three were confirmed coming down in Canada. The only fatalities caused by balloon bombs occurred on 5 May 1945, on Gearhart Mountain, near Bly, Oregon. A picnicking party of one adult and five children were killed instantly when they dragged an unexploded Imperial Japanese Navy 15-kg anti-personnel bomb out of the woods – these six people are the only known fatalities caused by enemy action on mainland United States during the Second World War.
It is not known whether any of the balloon bombs started forest fires, as was intended. In April 1945, the Japanese ceased their balloon launches, largely because of the American media blackout that had told them nothing about the success or failure of the campaign. What remains certain, however, is the fact that many of the bombs remain unaccounted for, and after over seventy years of deterioration could pose a serious risk to anyone who discovered one of these strange relics in the American countryside today.
A still live Japanese aerial bomb from a balloon discovered stuck in the ground near Lumby, Canada in October 2014. Photo: Infonews.ca
Proof of this claim was graphically demonstrated in Canada in 2014, when the remains of a balloon bomb’s gondola, including still live ordnance, was discovered near the town of Lumby. For more on this story, visit: http://infotel.ca/newsitem/unexploded-wwii-japanese-balloon-bomb-found-near-lumby/it13681
The ‘Wolf’s Lair’ conjures up images of danger, of hidden menace, of evil power. It was named by Hitler himself, playing on his own preoccupations with the wolf as metaphor for himself. Hidden beneath a canopy of fir trees, in the summer the complex of huge above ground concrete bunkers and net covered walkways was alive with the buzzing of mosquitos that thrived in the humid and unheathy local conditions. During the winter the forest was silent and heavily snow laden, the surrounding lakes frozen solid in the bitter cold.
The Wolf’s Lair was very well-named, hidden as it was deep in the gloomy East Prussian forest 5 miles (8km) east of Rastenburg (now Ketrzyn, Poland) and it was here that Hitler would spent most of the war, over 800 days in total, directing the monumental fight against the Soviet Union.
The site chosen by Dr. Fritz Todt was codenamed initially Anlage Nord (Installation North); it eventually became known as the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair). A one-track railway and a road ran through the Wolf’s Lair connecting the town of Rastenburg with Angerburg and Lotzen where other headquarters staffs were located.
The Wolf’s Lair complex, initially a collection of concrete bunkers and wooden huts, was in the middle of a dense fir forest and the complex covered 2.5 square miles (6.475 square km) and was divided into three security zones, or Sperrkreise. Where trees were felled to create space for buildings, artificial trees and camouflage netting was installed to maintain a continuous tree canopy. A company from Stuttgart was brought in to disguise the buildings, planting bushes, grass and artificial trees on the flat roofs. Roads were also partly disguised by camouflage netting and fake trees. The Germans carefully photographed the completed site from the air to test the camouflage, but the Soviets were soon aware of the existence of the headquarters and of its purpose.
Hitler’s train was kept under more nets and trees at Bahnhof Gorlitz, the Wolf’s Lair’s private station. Hitler first arrived at the Wolf’s Lair by train on 24 June 1941 and would stay, with some large breaks when he was in Berlin, Munich, and Berchtesgaden or at Werwolf, another Eastern Front headquarters, until 20 November 1944.
Visitors could arrive at the Wolf’s Lair using four methods. The first method was by train, arriving at Gorlitz Station. Every night two identical courier trains left from Silesian Station in Berlin and the town of Angerburg in East Prussia, arriving at the opposite destination the next morning. The second method was by plane, arriving at Rastenburg Airfield southwest of the Wolf’s Lair. Thirdly, the headquarters complex could be approached by road from the west, south or east. Fourthly, a rail trolley, a kind of tram, commuted between the Wolf’s Lair and the OKH “Mauerwald” command complex near Angerburg with stops at Gorlitz Station and at the eastern entrance gate near the Luftwaffe liaison offices.
In order to enter Sperrkreis I, the complex’s inner sanctum where Hitler lived and worked, one would have to pass through at least four security checkpoints.
Sperrkreis III was the outer security area consisting of fences, gates, slit trenches and guardhouses. The perimeter was extensively mined. After the war the Soviets removed 54,000 landmines from the complex. Close by to the northeast of Sperrkreis III was a Wehrmacht operations staff facility and army headquarters. Additional troops were stationed 45 miles (72km) away in case of an emergency. This unit, a kampfgruppe (battlegroup), was under the command of highly decorated combat officer Generalmajor Walter Denkert. It was later envisaged that Kampfgruppe Denkert would be used to garrison proposed Festung (Fortress) Lotzen. Denkert’s troops had responsibility for guarding the area outside of Sperrkreis III.
The FBB was responsible for guarding and defending Sperrkreis III. The unit was expanded in April 1943 by the creation of a second unit, the Führergrenadierbataillon (FGB) from selected Grossdeutschland personnel. The FBB and FGB had tanks, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units and mechanized infantry with which to defend the Wolf’s Lair.
Within Sperrkreis III, like a Russian doll, sat Sperrkreis II. It was a self-contained fenced area lying north and south of the Angerburg road. It contained concrete and brick one-storey houses of the Wehrmachtfuhrungsstab (Armed Forces Leadership Staff) and the headquarters of the Wolf’s Lair Commandant and his staff. There were two messes, heating plants and a communications centre. East of the buildings, and south of the road, were more concrete and brick houses containing the Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Luftwaffe liaison offices, a two-storey building for drivers with a large garage on the ground floor to store and maintain Mercedes limousines, two tall air raid bunkers, FBB barracks and the barracks for the Führer-Flak-Abteilung (Führer Anti-Aircraft Detachment). Sperrkreis II also contained housing for some of the senior Nazi leaders including Hitler’s Armaments Minister Albert Speer and Reich Labour Front leader Fritz Todt (until his death in a plane crash in February 1942).
Sitting like the yolk at the heart of the Wolf’s Lair egg was Sperrkreis I – the holiest of holies. Within Sperrkreis I was the Führerbunker as well as a collection of ten concrete bunkers or concrete and brick houses for the inner circle and their staffs. These consisted of bunkers for Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, Head of the Armed Force (OKW), Press Chief Dr. Otto Dietrich, Martin Bormann, a second communications centre, Generaloberst Jodl, Chief of the OKW Operations Staff, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the Army Personnel Office, and the Adjutants Office. There was a house for the shorthand writers who transcribed all of Hitler’s conversations and orders. Each bunker was above ground, the marshy soil precluding very many subterranean constructions, and each was built of steel reinforced concrete with 6ft 5in (2m) thick roofs to protect from aerial bombs. Hitler became increasingly and somewhat morbidly fascinated by the idea of an Allied bombing raid on the Wolf’s Lair and once remarked to his secretary Traudl Junge: ‘They know exactly where we are, and sometime they’re going to destroy everything here with carefully aimed bombs. I expect them to attack any day.’
To ensure his survival Hitler had Sperrkreis I extensively rebuilt in 1944, Albert Speer spending 36 million Reichsmarks reinforcing the bunkers. The Fuhrerbunker was turned into a veritable fortress containing a large maze of passages, rooms and halls. The roof was increased to a thickness of 23 feet (7m), with a layer of gravel within designed to provide a cushioning effect and prevent the cracking of the inner bunker shell if struck by large aerial bombs.
Within Sperrkreise I were also several RSD command posts, Hitler’s personal air raid shelter, the Secretariat under Philipp Bouhler, Johann Rattenhuber’s RSD security headquarters, a post office, radio and telex buildings, vehicle garages, a siding for Hitler’s private train, a cinema and generator buildings.
There were quarters for Hitler’s personal physician, the fat and unpopular Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s chief Luftwaffe adjutant General der Flieger Karl Bodenschatz, Walter Hewel of the Foreign Ministry, Vizeadmiral Hans Voss of the Kriegsmarine, and after 1943 SS-Brigadeführer Hermann Fegelein, representing Himmler’s SS. Martin Bormann always close by his Führer, having in addition to his personal bunker a nearby staff accommodation house and an air raid shelter. Hitler’s bunker was located at the northern end with all of its windows facing north to avoid direct sunlight. Hitler, Keitel and Jodl’s bunkers had built-in conference rooms.
For relaxation Sperrkreis I also had an officers’ mess, a mess room, teahouse, sauna, heating plant and a communal air raid shelter. The interiors were Spartan, as Hitler intended all of his field headquarters to reflect his own personal tastes and his concern to distance himself from his ‘official’ home in the grand and ostentatious Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler always wanted to appear as a humble and frugal man in front of his people, though ironically his security needs ended up absorbing huge amounts of money and manpower that could have been more profitably used helping the war effort. For example, in 1944 alone, Bormann had 28,000 forced labourers working on improving Hitler’s various headquarters when every able-bodied worker was needed in the armaments industry.
To guard further against the possibility of air attack there was a radar system that was able to locate incoming enemy aircraft up to 60 miles (96km) away, giving several minutes warning of an air raid, though the Wolf’s Lair was never seriously targeted by either the Red Air Force or the British and Americans. The Führer-Luft-Nachrichten-Abteilung (Führer Air Intelligence Detachment) had many observation posts to back up the radar system. If a plane was detected inside the security zone an alert list of key persons were immediately evacuated to shelters by the RSD or SS-Begleit-Kommando. Soviet planes did drop a few bombs on Sperrkreis III on one occasion, but other than this one nuisance raid the enemy left the Wolf’s Lair in peace.
Certain senior Nazis were prevented from having offices inside the Wolf’s Lair by Bormann, most notably Heinrich Himmler and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The OKH was also located elsewhere, only having adjutants at the Wolf’s Lair and regular visits by army commanders.
The OKH Eastern Front HQ was codenamed ‘Mauerwald’ and consisted of two sections that were separated by the Rosengarten–Angerburg road. ‘Fritz’ contained the General Staff offices and bunkers while ‘Quelle’ housed the supply section and general administration offices. The HQ was decentralized for security reasons, some personnel living in barracks in Angerburg, Lotzen and other local towns. In total, around 1,500 officers and men worked at Mauerwald. The generals and other senior officers were guarded by sixty secret military police and the entire site patrolled by two companies of older Wehrmacht soldiers who were unfit for frontline duty.
Hitler was always concerned about enemy parachute attack on his headquarters or those of the army high command and other important complexes close to the Wolf’s Lair. Hitler had sited his Eastern Front headquarters in dense forest in an attempt to preclude the Soviets from attempting this form of assault, because paratroop units that jump into forests generally suffered huge casualties from injuries sustained when striking the canopy, or prove easy targets for defending forces when strung up in the trees. The area around the Wolf’s Lair contained few open spaces big enough for the kind of enemy force that would be required to overwhelm the FBB units defending the Führer. But in winter this was not the case. The large lakes, including the nearby Moy-see and Zeiser-see, that dotted the marshy East Prussian landscape froze solid, providing perfect drop zones for paratroopers or glider-borne commandos. There was also a small landing strip for Fieseler Fi-156 Storch spotter planes south of the facility. Also located nearby, and separate from Hans Baur’s Führer Squadron (F.d.F) was the Führer Kurier Staffel (Führer Courier Squadron) under the command of Luftwaffe Hauptmann Talk. This unit consisted of between six and twelve fighters that could be used to quickly move around documents or dispatches and to ferry messages.
The threat from paratroopers was limited to some extent when the FBB dug in 20mm anti-aircraft cannons around the lakes to be used in the ground role, and to punch holes in the ice in the event of a sudden enemy landing. In the town of Goldap, 43.5 miles (70km) northeast of the Wolf’s Lair was a German paratroop battalion that was kept in a high state of readiness. If enemy forces or partisans penetrated the Wolf’s Lair’s security zone, these German paratroopers had orders to fly directly to Hitler’s aide and jump into action over Sperrkreise I, II, and III, Hitler apparently having no qualms about the casualties that these elite troops would suffer jumping into a forest canopy or landing on minefields.
Hitler and his staff would seal themselves inside their gas and bomb proof bunkers and await relief. Other nearby troops included SS Anti-Tank Training and Replacement Battalion 1 in Rastenburg.
As at the Berghof in Bavaria, so life for Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair was fairly relaxed and very routine. Hitler was remarkably indolent for a man attempting to hold his crumbling empire together, and usually rose late in the morning. After rising, washing and being shaved by his valet and taking breakfast Hitler would walk his Alsatian dog Blondi within Sperrkreis I between 9 and 10am. He did this alone with only his own thoughts for company. At his military headquarters Hitler always wore a form of uniform unique to him. Before the war Hitler was often seen dressed in a brown tunic with red and gold Nazi Party armband and black trousers, but he never wore this uniform once the war began. Instead, he would wear a high double-breasted military-style field grey tunic with a golden German eagle the left upper arm, white shirt, black tie, black trousers and leather shoes and a grey and brown peaked cap with gold embroidered eagle and national cockade.
When he was walking outside he usually also wore kid leather gloves. On the left side of his tunic were three badges – his Iron Cross First Class and Wound Badge in Black from the First World War and his Nazi Gold Party Badge. He was entitled to wear four other First World War decorations (Iron Cross Second Class, Bavarian Cross of Military Merit, Third Class with Swords, Bavarian Medal of Military Service, Third Class, Honour Cross of the World War 1914-18 with Swords) but never did. He was very proud of his Iron Cross and he wore it, along with his Wound Badge, to demonstrate his wartime courage and service to the ‘Fatherland’.
At 10.30am the mail was brought in to him. At noon he would walk across to Keitel and Jodl’s shared conference room for the first of the two daily situation briefings delivered by the military high command. This event, known as the ‘situation discussion’ was the most important event of the day. Depending on the news, this meeting might last for up to two hours. Lunch was served in the dining room promptly at 2pm. Hitler usually sat in the same place, between press secretary Dr. Otto Dietrich and Generaloberst Jodl. Opposite usually sat Keitel, Bormann and Generalder Flieger Bodenschatz. This arrangement was changed after a heated argument between Hitler and Jodl one lunchtime in early September 1942. Afterwards, Hitler ate along or with two of his secretaries until he became bored and a fresh list of lunch companions was drawn up.
Following his vegetarian meal Hitler would deal with non-military matters, particularly any meetings or receptions. He frequently had important international guests to talks at the Wolf’s Lair. Some of the notable visitors included Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, Admiral Miklos Horthy of Hungary, Admiral Pierre Laval, Prime Minister of Vichy France, Finnish statesman Field Marshal Carl Mannerheim, Mussolini and the Japanese Ambassador, General Hiroshi Oshima.
At 5pm Hitler would call the two female secretaries that he took with him to the Wolf’s Lair in to take coffee with him, as well some of his military aides. ‘A special world of praise was bestowed on the one who could eat the most cakes.’
At 6pm sharp there occurred the day’s second military briefing, the briefing delivered by Jodl. Dinner was served at 7.30pm, often dragging on for two hours as Hitler subjected his guests to one of his infamous monologues.
Afterwards, Hitler and his inner circle, and any high-ranking guests that were visiting him, usually repaired to the cinema to watch films and newsreels. Then Hitler would retire to his personal quarters, usually with Bormann and his two female secretaries, and talk or listen to music until the early hours. ‘Sometimes, it was daylight by the time the nocturnal discussions came to an end.’ As the war started to go badly for Hitler the atmosphere around changed. Towards the end Jodl was to describe the Wolf’s Lair as halfway ‘between a monastery and a concentration camp.’
Hitler’s two secretaries at the Wolf’s Lair, Christa Schroeder and Gerda Daranowski (later Christian) were given very simple living quarters. ‘The sleeping section of their bunker was no larger than a compartment in a railway carriage. It had a toilet, a mirror, and a radio, but not much else. There were shower rooms.’ They were also under-employed in the almost exclusively male-dominated world of the Wolf’s Lair, drawing criticism from many of the adjutants. But it appeared that Hitler liked to have females around for company. ‘They had as good as nothing to do. Sleeping, eating, drinking, and chatting filled up most of their day.’ The job of being Hitler’s secretary was not, apparently, a particularly happy one. ‘We are permanently cut off from the world wherever we are,’ complained Schroeder in a letter to a friend in August 1941, ‘in Berlin, on the Mountain [Obersalzberg], or on travels. It’s always the same limited group of people, always the same routine inside the fence.’
Security and guard duties along the fences of Sperrkreise I and II were primarily the responsibility of the FBB. Hauptmann Gaum, an FBB officer, made this point emphatically to his British interrogators in late 1944. Three guard companies were on active duty at any given time, day or night. Inside Sperrkreiss I the primary bodyguards were RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando. RSD Bureau I worked in cooperation with the SS. An SS-Begleit-Kommando officer was responsible for guard changes and patrols by both services as well as guards at the cinema, the issue of passwords, and supervising guards details in their quarters before they came on duty. Permanent guards were mounted as follows:
SS-Begleit-Kommando guard in front of the Führerbunker day and night.
RSD officer on constant patrol around the Führerbunker day and night.
RSD officer in front of the shorthand writers’ building day and night.
RSD officer patrolling throughout Sperrkreis I between 10am and 6pm.
Hitler’s permanent adjutants were empowered to use the RSD guards for small errands as required. Anyone leaving one bunker to visit another bunker had to have permission. Officers were not permitted to freely wander around Sperrkreiss I. Identity papers could be demanded at any time, and the RSD would check them thoroughly and the person would then be escorted to his destination or to an exit gate into Sperrkreis II. The RSD guards were not supposed to stand around chatting or to walk in pairs. When Hitler was walking his dog or strolling the grounds in conversation with a member of the inner circle or a guest, the RSD officer on roving patrol was supposed to keep other people out of earshot of Hitler, and also make sure that he stayed well back. RSD guards were also not permitted to enter the Führerbunker unless they were escorting in a workman or a maintenance engineer. Any messages or packages for the Führerbunker were handed to one of Hitler’s adjutants at the main door.
Although it appeared that the guards always followed strict protocol regarding passes, Hauptmann Gaum noted that this was not always rigorously applied for the top Nazis. ‘If a person such as Himmler or Göring were seen approaching slowly in a car, he might possibly be let by without being checked by the sentry, but in that case the sentry would ring the Ic of the Camp Commandant, who was the official responsible for issuing passes to persons before entering the FHQ.’
Hitler was frightened of the noxious vapours that were given off from his ferro-concrete bunker walls at the Wolf’s Lair, so the RSD maintained oxygen tanks outside of the bunkers ready to pump in fresh air. These tanks were regularly tested. The bunkers were also fitted with anti-gas chambers to prevent the enemy or any would be assassins from pumping poison gas into the bunkers through the air ventilation system.
On 20 September 1943 Hitler, returning to Wolf’s Lair from his other Eastern Front HQ codenamed Werwolf, decided to further tighten up his security arrangements. Rudolf Schmundt and NSKK-Gruppenführer Albert Bormann, Martin Bormann’s brother and one of Hitler’s closest aides, issued a new directive to further intensify security and secrecy within Sperrkreis I. A new inner sanctum was created called Sperrkreis A. It included Keitel’s bunkers and annexes, Hitler’s personal adjutants building, Mess No. 1, the teahouse, the Führerbunker, Martin Bormann’s bunker, the Wehrmacht Adjutants’ Office and the Army Personnel Office. Only those serving with Hitler directly or those who had offices within Sperrkreiss A, or those who lived there, were allowed in regularly. New passes were issued by the RSD.
Additional passes could be issued by HQ Commandant only on the authority of Schmundt or his deputy in consultation with Hitler’s aide SS-Obergruppenführer Schaub or his deputy. The guard could issue day passes only after a personal or military adjutant of the Führer had given his permission. No one was allowed inside Sperrkreis A without a valid pass. Anyone found without the proper documentation, regardless of rank, would be immediately arrested by the RSD.
Three gates gave access to Sperrkreiss A – one by Keitel’s bunker, one next to the Adjutants’ House and one by Bormann’s building. One RSD officer and one FBB NCO manned each gate. The FBB was responsible for checking passes and the RSD man assisted. In addition, one RSD officer was on constant patrol within Sperrkreiss A.
A special list of thirty-eight persons was created by the RSD. These men and women were permitted to dine with the Fuhrer at lunchtime in Dining Room No. 1, and Hitler would select several each day from the list who were then issued with passes for Sperrkreiss A. In addition, a further forty-three aides, valets, typists and shorthand writers were on another list permitting them to dine in Dining Room No. 2 inside Sperrkreiss I.
These new security precautions made any attempt to kill the Führer considerably more difficult. An assassin would firstly have to have a valid reason to enter the Wolf’s Lair complex, and would have to pass through four identity checks before gaining direct access to Hitler. Very few people were given passes for Sperrkreiss I, let alone the new inner sanctum of Sperrkreiss A. But those determined to kill Hitler were resourceful and often well-connected individuals who were prepared to use Hitler’s security precautions to their own advantage. During 1943-44 trusted men who were close to Hitler tried to kill him on several occasions. It would only take the right circumstances for one of these brave men to succeed and change Germany and the world’s destiny in an instant. The countdown to Operation Valkyrie had begun…
With the current uncertainty in US-North Korean relations here’s an amazing and true, but largely unknown, story from the first Korean War.
In 1952, deep in the midst of the brutal Korean War, Chairman Mao ordered a special ‘Camp Olympics’ organised in North Korea with competing teams made up of prisoners-of-war from the UN nations. This Communist propaganda coup was run along the lines of the real Olympic Games, and involved teams competing in many Olympic sports. Britain and the United States were especially prominent players. To read more check out my article in Military History Monthly http://www.military-history.org/articles/war-zone-pow-camp-korea-1952.htm