“If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”Nicholas Winton
In December 1938 twenty-nine year old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton was planning a holiday skiing trip to Switzerland when he received a phone call from friend Martin Blake who was working with the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia (BCRC). Instead of Switzerland Nicholas travelled to Prague. [In January 1993 Czechoslovakia in a peaceful dissolution would be split into the two sovereign states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.]
What was the political climate in Europe in the 1930s? Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. In violation of the WWI Versailles Treaty Germany began rebuilding its military. In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in March 1936. In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany absorbed Austria in March 1938. In September 1938 England and France (without consulting the government of Czechoslovakia) and as part of the Munich Pact allowed Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia which had been incorporated into the country as part of the Treaty of Versailles.
It was at this time in history that Nicholas Winton would arrive in Prague on New Year’s Eve 1938. He would check into the Grand Hotel Šroubek (later renamed the Grand Hotel Europa) on Wenceslas Square. A hotel restaurant table would become his office as he met with families and helped plan for Czech refugee children to be taken to England for the duration of the soon expected outbreak of war in Europe.
[Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. With the invasion of Poland in September 1939 England and France declared war on Germany.]
In addition to working with the BCRC in Prague Nicholas would provide logistical support for two Kindertransport (children’s transport) flights sponsored by the Barbican Mission on January 12, 1939, which brought 20 children to England and a Sweden Red Cross flight that transported 30 children to Sweden on January 16 or 17, 1939.
Having exhausted his vacation time Nicholas returned to England and his stockbroker job on January 21, 1939. But his work to rescue the children continued.
Nicholas’ job was not insurmountable, but he put into practice his motto, “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.” He needed to raise money for the transportation of the children. He needed permission of the Immigration Section of the British Home Office to bring them into the country and was required to provide guarantor monies for them. The Netherlands had closed its borders in November 1938 after Kristallnacht. He negotiated with the government of The Netherlands to allow the train to pass through the country. And he needed to find foster families, hostels, or other organizations to care for the children.
In Prague Nicholas’ colleagues working with the BCRC were hurriedly gathering documents, photographs, adding names of children to the list of refugees, and dealing with the Nazis’ requirements to allow trains of mostly Jewish children to leave Czechoslovakia.
Kindertransport trains would leave Prague, travel through Germany, pass through The Netherlands to the Hook of Holland, children would sail by ferry to England, and arrive by train at the Liverpool Street Station in London. The foster families would be waiting at the station to meet their new family member.
The first Kindertransport train left Prague on March 14, 1939. Seven Kindertransports were to follow. The ninth train with 250 children was scheduled to leave in September 1939. After Poland was attacked by Germany on September 1, 1939, the Germans cancelled the ninth train. According to Nicholas’ daughter, Barbara, who wrote the book If it’s Not Impossible… about her father’s life, no further information about the children scheduled to leave on the ninth train was found and that many of them most likely died at Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
The Czech Kindertransport rescue lasted nine months.
With the start of WWII and the Kindertransports ending, Nicholas Winton joined the British war effort as an ambulance driver and then became a member of the Royal Air Force until the end of the war.
After the war ended, Nicholas Winton would work for the London-based International Committee for Refugees which would be integrated into the International Refugee Organization of the newly formed United Nations. In 1948 he accepted a job with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, France. It was in Paris that he met a Danish girl, Grete Gjelstrup. They were married in October 1948.
Grete did not know about the Czech Kindertransport until she found a scrapbook in their attic in Maidenhead, England, in the late 1980s. The scrapbook she found would make the story public.
Nicholas Winton and the group of rescuers working together on the Czech Kindertransport over the nine months of its existence saved the lives of 669 children.
The Scrapbook. At the end of the Kindertransport operation in 1939, a volunteer in the organization, Mr. W. M. Loewinsohn, presented a scrapbook to Winton that included correspondence, data, photos, and other information gathered during the BCRC effort to rescue the children. At the back of the scrapbook was a list of the rescued children and the names and addresses of the families who agreed to foster them.
In 1988 Nicholas was invited to be a member of the audience in a BBC television program called That’s Life! The host of the show, Esther Rantzen, would tell the story of the 1939 Czech Kindertransport and show the scrapbook to the audience. At a point in the show the host spoke of a rescued child, now an adult, named Vera (Diamant) Gissing. Unbeknownst to Nicholas, Vera was sitting next to him. Vera gave him an embrace and said “thank you, thank you.”
In a follow-on episode of That’s Life! the next week, the host asked if there was anyone in the audience who owed their life to Nicholas Winton. Almost five rows of “Nicky’s children” stood up.
The “children” contacted by the BBC did not know how they were saved or who had saved them until then.
On March 11, 2003, Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England.
A documentary Nicky’s Family was released in 2011. It was narrated by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, foreign correspondent, and author Joe Schlesinger. Joe was one of “Nicky’s children.”
Sir Nicholas Winton died in his sleep on July 1, 2015. He was 106 years old.
A Prague Post article on July 4, 2015, stated, “The first candles on the platform from which trains with Czechoslovak children of Jewish origin were leaving appeared a few hours after Winton’s death was announced.”
In Moscow on August 23, 1939, an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed. It included a plan for the division of Poland. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact served as a prelude to Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The Pact assured Hitler that the Soviets would not interfere with Germany’s planned military action against Poland.
Britain and France signed military alliances with Poland in 1939 to come to her aid if attacked.
Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939.
Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3.
The Soviet Union attacked Poland September 17.
By the end of September 1939 both Germany and the Soviet Union occupied the agreed upon Polish territory as set in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Second Polish Republic no longer existed.
Neither Britain nor France came to the aid of Poland.
[The account of this massacre as told in this story is based upon declassified documents and the release of Soviet archival material in the early 1990s after the fall of communism.]
As the Germans advanced into the Soviet Union in 1943 they found a mass grave in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk which held an estimated 4,500 bodies. The bodies, some in Polish uniforms, some with their hands tied behind their back, were stacked in layers 12 bodies high in an approximate 92 feet long and 52 feet wide pit. Victims had been shot in the back of the head.
The Soviets captured and arrested thousands of Polish military and Polish intelligentsia after attacking Poland September 17, 1939. An estimated 22,000 prisoners of war were imprisoned in three main prisoner of war camps in the Soviet Union: Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk. On March 5, 1940, Stalin signed a document ordering the execution of the prisoners. The executions were carried out in April and May 1940. The Polish prisoners of war at Kozelsk were shot at the Katyn Forest site, according to most accounts, and buried in a pit. The prisoners of war at Ostashkov and Starobelsk were shot at NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs/Soviet Secret Police) prisons at Kalinin and Kharkov, respectively.
Benjamin B. Fischer in a paper, “The Killing Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field,” wrote,“Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots. It was their social status that landed them in front of NKVD execution squads. … In all, the NKVD eliminated almost half the Polish officer corps–part of Stalin’s long-range effort to prevent the resurgence of an independent Poland.”
One of the Polish pilots killed at Katyn was a woman. Her name was Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska.
After finding the Katyn gravesite in early 1943, the Germans called in forensic experts before announcing to the world that the Soviets had killed the Polish officers. The Soviets denied the accusation and blamed the Germans for the mass murder. The London based Polish government-in-exile led by Polish Prime Minister General Wladyslaw Sikorski wanted to open an investigation by the International Red Cross. The Soviets immediately cut off diplomatic relations with the Polish government.
According to declassified historical documents and archival findings, both United States (US) President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been told by members of their governments about the Soviet responsibility for the mass murder discovered at Katyn.
Both the US and British governments were accused of suppressing information about the massacre. Neither government at the time publicly acknowledged Katyn nor sought an investigation.
A post WWII US Congress investigation would concur with the US suppression charge in 1952.
The US Congress Select Committee on Katyn Forest Massacre 1951 – 1952 *
The seven committee members on the rostrum in the photograph above are (left to right) US House of Representatives members Timothy P. Sheehan, Alvin E. O’Konski, George A. Dondero, Ray J. Madden (Chairman), Daniel J. Flood, Foster Furcolo, and Thaddeus M. Machrowicz.
1. In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.
For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war. Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did. It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.
And, it is equally true that even before 1942 the Kremlin rulers gave much evidence of a menace of Soviet imperialism paving the way for world conquest. Through the disastrous failure to recognize the danger signs which then existed and in following a policy of satisfying the Kremlin leaders, our Government unwittingly strengthened their hand and contributed to a situation which has grown to be a menace to the United States and the entire free world.
2. Our committee is sending a copy of this report, and volume 7 of the published hearings, to the Department of Defense for such action as may be proper with regard to General Bissell. We do so because of the fact that this committee believes that had the Van Vliet report been made immediately available to the Department of State and to the American public, the course of our governmental policy toward Soviet Russia might have been more realistic with more fortunate postwar results.
3. This committee believes that the wartime policies of Army Intelligence (G-2) during 1944-45 should undergo a thorough investigation. Testimony heard by the committee substantiates this belief, and if such an investigation is conducted another object lesson might belearned.
4. Our committee concludes that the staff members of the Office of War Information and Federal Communications Commission who participated in the program of silencing Polish radio commentators went beyond the scope of their duties as official Government representatives. Actually, they usurped the functions of the Office of Censorship and by indirect pressure accomplished domestic censorship which was not within the jurisdiction of either of these agencies.
5. This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.
6. This committee began its investigation last year, and as the committee’s work progressed, information, documents, and evidence was submitted from all parts of the world. It was at this same time that reports reached the committee of similar atrocities and violations of international law being perpetrated in Korea. This committee noted the striking similarity between crimes committed against the Poles at Katyn and those being inflicted on American and other United Nation troops in Korea. Communist tactics being used in Korea are identical to those followed at Katyn. Thus this committee believes that Congress should undertake an immediate investigation of the Korean war atrocities in order that the evidence can be collected and the truth revealed to the American people and the free peoples of the world. This committee will return to Congress approximately $21,000 in surplus funds, and it is suggested that this money be made available by Congress for such an investigation.
The final report of the Select Committee Investigating the Katyn Forest Massacre hereby incorporates the recommendations contained in the interim report, filed on July 2, 1952 (H. Rept. No. 2430).
This committee unanimously recommends that the House of Representatives approve the committee’s findings and adopt a resolution:
1. Requesting the President of the United States to forward the testimony, evidence, and findings of this committee to the United States delegates at the United Nations;
2. Requesting further that the President of the United States issue instructions to the United States delegates to present the Katyn case to the General Assembly of the United Nations;
3. Requesting that appropriate steps be taken by the General Assembly to seek action before the International World Court of Justice against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for committing a crime at Katyn which was in violation of the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations;
4. Requesting the President of the United States to instruct the United States delegation to seek the establishment of an international commission which would investigate other mass murders and crimes against humanity.
The final report of the Select Committee Investigating the Katyn Forest Massacre was sent to US President Harry S. Truman. No action was taken on the Recommendations, at least not publicly.
Churchill had told the Poles that they would again have a free and independent country and be “happy” after the war.
Two “Big Three” Conferences would decide the postwar fate of Poland.
Tehran Conference November 28 – December 1, 1943
This was the first of the WWII “Big Three” Conferences. The participants were US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.
It was at this conference that Churchill told Stalin that after WWII the Soviet Union could keep the territory of Poland that Stalin captured in September 1939 (as designated in the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union). Churchill said the prewar western border of Poland could be moved further west to compensate Poland for her loss to the Soviets.
Yalta Conference February 4 – 11, 1945
The future of Europe post WWII was determined by the “Big Three.”
After Stalin’s broken promise to hold free elections in Poland the country would become a satellite state within the “sphere of influence” of the Soviet Union. It would be named the communist People’s Republic of Poland.
The Allies did not consult with the London Polish government-in-exile regarding the postwar future of Poland.
After Poland was overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 those Poles able to escape established a government-in-exile in London. The Polish agreed to continue their fight under the British High Command. The Polish military would support the Allied cause in the air, sea, and on land. Overall, the Polish military was the fourth largest Allied army in WWII after the Soviet Union, United States, and Britain.
On June 8, 1946, Britain celebrated the end of WWII with a Victory Parade in London.
Britain’s WWII Polish ally was not invited to take part in the parade.
Historians write that a British sensitivity to Stalin, the pro-communist government set up in postwar Poland, and the start of the Cold War may account for the Clement Attlee government to exclude their wartime ally from the parade.
On September 18, 1976, a memorial to the Katyn Forest Massacre was dedicated at Gunnersbury Cemetery in London.
Poles in the United Kingdom were trying since the end of the war to have a memorial dedicated to their countrymen killed at Katyn. Successive British governments after WWII had objected to a remembrance of the massacre.
The British government chose not to be represented at the 1976 dedication. Serving British military officers were told they could attend the ceremony but were instructed not to wear a uniform.
On April 13, 1990, the Soviet government officially acknowledged its responsibility for the Katyn Forest Massacre.
After the fall of communism Poland would become the independent and free Third Republic of Poland.
On April 10, 2010, Poland President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, high-ranking Polish military leaders and government officials were flying from Warsaw, Poland, to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Katyn. The airplane crashed on approach to Smolensk and near the Katyn Forest site. All 96 people on board died.
In WWII the United States Army Quartermaster Graves Registration Service was responsible for the care of the dead in all the branches of military service. They worked with reverence and respect to preserve the dignity of those who sacrificed their lives.
WWII researcher and author, Jennifer Holik, has studied and written in-depth about the United States (U.S.) Graves Registration Service (GRS). The following excerpts are from two of her articles:
“In 1867 … Congress gave the Quartermaster General in the U.S. Army the responsibility of establishing permanent military cemeteries, handling burials, keeping records, and handling ongoing maintenance of these cemeteries.
When the U.S. entered World War II … they planned to establish several cemeteries near the active front and would bring Soldier Dead to these cemeteries. Collection points would be established so the combat units could assist in the collection and identification of Soldier Dead.
The GRS in World War II were not only responsible for collecting, identifying, and burying the Soldier Dead, but also handling personal effects. The men had a system by which they worked on the stripping line to handle effects so they would be returned to the owner’s family.
GRS workers were responsible for locating suitable cemetery sites. They examined the terrain, soil quality, and distance to enemy lines. Upon selection of a site, they plotted the cemetery. Maps were drawn, processing tents were set up and the men assigned tasks. Local civilian workers were called in to dig graves and bury the dead.
It was important to bury all the dead primarily for health concerns. Decomposing bodies out in the open spread disease and lowered troop morale. It was better that the troops didn’t encounter the remains of Soldier Dead very often, lest the fear and panic they already felt increase, making them unable to do their job effectively.
Soldiers were buried for forensic reasons also. Information was gathered from the Soldier Dead to not only identify them but also gather information on how they were killed.
GRS claimed the remains of Soldier Dead from a unit, along the road side or battle ground. They worked on both sides of enemy lines in the mud, rain, deep snow, jungles and on beaches in their recovery efforts.
Effects recovered were bagged and sent to Kansas City, Missouri, for disbursement. They were cleaned of blood and grime.
When a soldier was located after death, every attempt at identification took place. The process began at the stripping line where troops initially removed explosives and equipment. Another soldier took these items to an ammo and equipment area so they could be reissued.
Next, medical sergeants stepped in with a clerk. The sergeants cut pockets and other pieces of clothing to locate identification tags and personal effects.
An Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) was created for every Soldier Dead upon receipt of remains by the GRS.
A Report of Burial contained the soldier’s name, serial number, rank, date of death, place of death, a copy of his identification tag is stamped onto the form using an addressograph machine. The report also contained the grave location of the soldier along with the man buried on either side of him. … A list of personal effects were included if any were found on the body.
If the deceased was unable to be identified then a form that allowed for fingerprinting and dental records was used and inserted into the Soldier Dead file. This form also contained space to list a physical description and information on personal effects or other things that might help identify the deceased.
The Report of Death was a form for the Adjutant General’s Office that listed name, rank, serial number, branch of service, date of birth and death, date of active entry in service, where he was killed, emergency contact and beneficiary information.
Request for Disposition of Remains. This form was sent to the next of kin to complete so the government would know what to do with the remains. The choices were:
To be interred at a Permanent American Military Cemetery Overseas.
To be returned to the United States or any possession or territory thereof for interment by next of kin in a private cemetery.
To be returned to [insert foreign country] the homeland of the deceased for interment by next of kin.
To be returned to the United States for final interment in a National Cemetery.
Disinterment Directive. This form contains the basic identifying information on the Soldier Dead: Name, rank, serial number, date of death, cemetery name and location of grave, name and address of next of kin, condition of remains, date disinterred and remains prepared.
Not all Soldier Dead were identified because of the condition of the body when it was received by the GRS. Unknown Soldier Dead were assigned an X number since there was no serial number by which to identify them. … Unknown remains were placed into a mattress cover and the X number was painted on the bag.
The family was notified of Missing in Action and Killed in Action statuses within a couple of months of the event. When the family was notified, they were done so through the War Department.
After the war ended, the U.S. government began working with overseas officials to secure the authorization to use ports, disinter remains in private cemeteries, and to use rail and waterways to transport remains to major sea ports. Once this was in place, the government was able to contact families of the Soldier Dead to inquire about their wishes for the final burial.
The government began notifying families of the location of their Soldier Dead beginning in late 1946 and continuing for several years afterward. It is possible a family’s soldier had been buried overseas for two or more years before the family was notified of the location.
The disinterment and repatriation process took a couple years or more after the war ended. This was due in part to a shortage of materials for cases for the coffins and a shortage of metal for the coffins themselves. … When a Soldier Dead was placed in these coffins, they were sealed and placed into a wooden shipping case. The shipping case had the name, rank, and serial number of the soldier inscribed on the case.
Soldier Dead from World War II were returned home or reburied in a permanent American Military Cemetery overseas from late 1947 through 1951.”
U.S. military deaths in WWII totaled over 400,000. Every serviceman and servicewoman had a story. This is the story of the life and death of John J. Kubinski and his journey back to his home state of Ohio after WWII ended.
John Joseph Kubinski was born in Ohio on April 10, 1919, to Polish immigrants Stanley and Nellie Kubinski. He attended Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio. John married Susan Billock on November 29, 1941, and he was employed at the Republic Steel Corporation plant in Newton Falls, Ohio, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.
On March 26, 1942, John enlisted in the U.S. Army. His Enlistment Records noted he was 73 inches tall and weighed 149 pounds. He was given the military rank of Private.
Private John J. Kubinski was assigned to the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment, as a Glider Infantryman.
The 401st Glider Infantry Regiment participated in the June 1944 Normandy Invasion (codenamed Operation Overlord) landing on Utah Beach with the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division.
On September 18, 1944, 750 gliders from the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment would land in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. The mission of the 401st was to keep open the road between Sint-Oedenrode and Eindhoven. The road was of vital importance as British armored units advanced north from the Belgium and Netherlands border with the objective to reach the bridge at Arnhem. Fighting was fierce and combat losses were heavy as the 401st fought 72 days to keep the road open between Veghel and Son, Holland.
It was in that 72 day period that then promoted Sergeant (SGT) John J. Kubinski was seriously wounded. He was transported to the U.S. Army 24th Evacuation Hospital, which at that time was working out of the Saint Maarten Kliniek (Clinic) in Nijmegen, Holland. It was here that John would die from his wounds.
One of SGT Kubinski’s nurses at the 24th Evacuation Hospital was Lieutenant (LT) Josephine Pescatore. In a 2011 oral history interview she still remembered a courageous young soldier who often spoke of his family and how much he loved them. John asked LT Pescatore if she could find a priest for him to talk to before he died. After visiting with the priest, SGT John J. Kubinski, age 25, died at five o’clock in the afternoon on November 16, 1944.
SGT John J. Kubinski was buried in Plot F, Row 3, Grave 50 at U.S. Temporary Cemetery 4655 at Molenhoek, Holland.
After WWII ended, John’s wife, Susan, made the decision to bring his body back to the U.S. for burial in Newton Falls, Ohio.
In November 1948 the remains of SGT John J. Kubinski were disinterred from U.S. Temporary Cemetery 4655 and travelled by train to Antwerp, Belgium. John’s casket along with the remains of 3,384 WWII dead sailed from Antwerp to New York City on the U.S. Army Transport Barney Kirschbaum. His casket would travel by train from New York City and arrive in Newton Falls, Ohio, on January 31, 1949. SGT Kubinski’s casket, draped by an American flag, was met by the James Funeral Home and The American Legion.
John was survived by his wife, Susan; his parents Stanley and Nellie Kubinski; and his brothers Alex, Edward, Stanley, and Joseph.
John was laid to rest at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Newton Falls, Ohio, on February 3, 1949.
The coralline limestone archipelago of Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814. Valletta, the capital of Malta, was the headquarters of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet until it was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 1930s prior to the start of WWII. The location of Malta was considered too susceptible to enemy air strikes should Italy become a belligerent in a future conflict. Britain did decide to build up the offensive and defensive capabilities of Malta but had not completed the task before WWII started.
Malta is located in the Mediterranean Sea halfway between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt, and with important shipping lanes passing near Malta, it was positioned to be of strategic value to the WWII Allies and Axis countries. In Douglas Porch’s book The Path to Victory he writes, “Malta was the only place in the central Mediterranean where bombers flying from Gibraltar to Suez could refuel. Valletta’s Grand Harbor … supplied the only haven for British ships in a long stretch of otherwise hostile Axis sea. Malta’s problem was that while it lay eleven hundred miles from Gibraltar and nine hundred miles from Egypt, Valletta was only twenty minutes’ flying time from Sicily.”
Malta did have some military advantages before WWII began. It was the first country in the British Empire outside of Britain to receive Radio Directing Finding technology (a type of early radar). It was also a “listening post” intercepting German Enigma message traffic.
England and France declared war on Germany two days after the September 1, 1939, invasion of Poland. Nine months later on June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on England and France.
Malta was a naval and military fortress that was essential to the Allies. It was the only Allied base in the Mediterranean between British controlled Gibraltar and Egypt. Allied warships and submarines used Malta’s harbors. Bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft could fly from its three airfields and seaplane base.
Axis Mediterranean shipping routes bringing supplies to General Rommel and the German Africa Korps during the North African Campaign (1940 – 1943) were vulnerable to Allied submarines and aircraft operating out of Malta.
[The Axis thought it could defeat the British forces and civilian population on Malta with aerial bombardment only. After failure to accomplish that Germany and Italy considered a land invasion codename Operation Hercules in 1942, but the plan was never executed.]
The first air attack on Malta by Italy was on June 11, 1940.
Anti-artillery posts were established on Malta to defend against the fierce Italian and later German aerial bombing raids.
The only air defense in Malta at the outbreak of WWII was a small force of Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes which were flown by the newly formed Hal Far Fighter Flight. A Malta newspaper would later name three of the biplanes Faith, Hope, and Charity.
By the end of June British Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived in Malta. They became a component of the Royal Air Force No. 261 Squadron.
In January 1941 the German Luftwaffe X Fliegerkorps flying from Sicily launched a bombing offensive against Malta.
British Spitfire fighters would arrive on Malta in March 1942. The Spitfires were the first to be deployed outside of Britain. The Spitfires were a more equal match for the Italian and German fighter planes.
In April 1942 the aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Wasp (CV-7), then part of the Atlantic Campaign, was attached to the British Home Fleet to deliver aircraft to Malta which was teetering on defeat after intense Italian and German bombing and military and civilian supply shortages. The Prime Minister of England Winston Churchill asked United States President Franklin Roosevelt for assistance to save Malta. The USS Wasp would make two trips ferrying Spitfires. Once through the Strait of Gibraltar the Spitfires would fly off the carrier. The flying distance to Malta was within 700 miles.
Allied submarines played a significant role in the defeat of the Axis in the Mediterranean. Sinking or damaging Axis ships sailing to North Africa with needed supplies affected the fighting capability and morale of German and Italian troops.
The Polish submarine ORP (English translation, Warship of the Republic of Poland) Sokół (Falcon) was based at the Malta Manoel Island submarine base from September 1941 to March 1944. She was attached to the Royal Navy 10th Submarine Flotilla. ORP Sokół sank or damaged 19 enemy vessels.
At the time of the surrender of France to Germany on June 10, 1940, the French submarine Narval was at sea in the Mediterranean and had been ordered not to visit any British ports. The submarine commander Captain Cloarec ignored the order, sailed to Malta, and joined the Free French Naval Forces. In December 1940 it sank after hitting a mine.
The population of Malta in June 1940 was over 250,000. The first air attack on Malta by Italy on June 11, 1940, was the first of seven raids that day. The siege of Malta began.
During the seige the people of Malta were unified. Shelters were dug into the limestone rock of the island. The civilians and military worked together. Rationing began in February 1941. Food, fuel, and ammunition shortages were common. Supplies would sometimes get through, but by the spring of 1942 Malta’s lack of food, water shortages, poor nutrition, and sanitation problems reached a peak. Malta had chosen September 1942 as a surrender date.
To aid Malta and attempt to prevent a surrender, the British developed a plan codename Operation Pedestal. In August 1942 a convoy with 14 ships carrying needed supplies and fuel left England. Porch’s book Path to Victory states, “The ‘Pedestal’ convoy, guarded by two battleships, four carriers, seven cruisers, thirty-three destroyers, and twenty-four submarines and minesweepers, as well as more than two hundred planes, cleared Gibralter on 10 August. For the next four days it endured a massive sea and air assault by forces alerted to the convoy’s approach by Axis intelligence.”
One of the convoy ships, Ohio, carried 10,000 tons of aviation fuel. Ohio, an American oil tanker owned by Texas Oil Company (known later as Texaco), was requisitioned by the Allies to bring the desperately needed fuel to Malta.
After entering the Mediterranean and the ensuing intense battle, Ohio was very badly damaged. It was abandoned twice and re-boarded twice. Ohio had been a prime target of the Axis forces. Forty miles or so outside of Malta desperate measures were taken to get the tanker to its destination.
In recounting the effort to save Ohio, curator of the National War Museum in Valletta, Mr. Debono, states that in an effort to lift the morale of those slowly guiding and maneuvering the ship to Malta, the HMS Penn played a well known song of the day Chattanooga Choo Choo loudly over its public address system.
Mr. Debono recounts that on August 15th at 8 a.m. Ohio made its way into Valletta’s Grand Harbor being towed and supported by British destroyers HMS Penn and HMS Bramham. It arrived to a cheering crowd and a band playing God Save the King, Rule Britannia, and The Star Spangled Banner. A crew member on a ship reported being emotionally overwhelmed by the greeting of the Maltese people that day.
August 15th is the Feast of Santa Marija (Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady). The Maltese continue to call the WWII convoy the Santa Marija Convoy.
After the last of its fuel was drained from the ship, Ohio split in half and sank in Grand Harbor.
The delivery of fuel revitalized the air offensive against the Axis Mediterranean shipping routes bringing supplies to General Rommel and the German Africa Korps.
During the 1940 – 1942 Axis bombing of Malta, there had been 3,340 bombing alerts.
Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943. The Italian Naval Fleet surrendered in Grand Harbor, Valletta, Malta.
The George Cross was awarded by King George VI to the people of Malta to “bear witness to the heroism and the devotion of its people” during the siege of Malta.
In 1964 the British Parliament passed the Malta Independence Act. Malta became the State of Malta and in 1974 the Republic of Malta.
The USS Wasp was transferred from the WWII Atlantic Theater to the Pacific Theater in June 1942. After being hit by multiple Japanese submarine torpedoes on September 15 of that year, she was abandoned and scuttled. The wreck of the USS Wasp was discovered on January 14, 2019.
Planning for the WWII Allied invasion of Europe began in 1943. Operation Bodyguard and Operation Fortitude were employed as Allied landing deception plans with three objectives: (1) to conceal the chosen Allied landing at Normandy, France, (2) to mislead the Germans as to the actual location, date, and time of the landing, and (3) to divert and keep German troops from reinforcing the Normandy area. Operation Neptune, the naval planning phase to cross the British Channel, and Operation Overlord, the landing and battle plan, were closely coordinated for the Allied landing initially planned for June 5, 1944. Weather conditions would eventually change the landing date to June 6, 1944.
Before the actual invasion of France, deception plans included double agents, false information passed through diplomatic channels and wireless activities, and physical deceptions such as dummy tanks placed strategically in Britain to confuse and fool any aerial German reconnaissance activity. These methods were referred to as “Special Means.” The British had great success using deception tactics during the North Africa Campaign [June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943].
In late 1943 a United States (US) Army Captain Ralph Ingersoll was working with Allied planners in London to develop plans and strategy to deceive the Germans before, during, and after the planned 1944 Normandy invasion. He had an idea to establish a separate American military deception unit. The US Pentagon approved the idea, and a new Army unit with a mission of deception, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was activated on January 20, 1944. Colonel Harry L. Reader was named its commander.
Members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were a carefully chosen group of 1,100 men who were artists, sonic (sound) technicians, meteorologists, actors, set designers, engineers, camouflage experts, illustrators, architects, and other creative people and ordinary soldiers. Their combined talents would be used to deceive, confuse, and mislead the German Army.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was organized into four units having special areas of expertise:
The 603rdEngineer Camouflage Battalion Special
Of the 379 men in this unit, many were artists recruited from New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, art schools. Using props such as inflatable rubber tanks, jeeps, artillery, and aircraft they staged visual deceptions to trick and confuse the Germans.
It took under 30 minutes to inflate a rubber tank with an air compressor. An inflated tank weighed 93 pounds.
The Signal Company Special
This 296 man unit mastered the use of radio deception, also known as “spoof radio,” and sent fake transmissions trying to bluff the Germans as to the location, strength, and readiness of other Allied units.
The 3132 Signal Service Company Special
The sonic (sound) effects of this 145 man group, usually used at night with sound recordings projected from 500 pound powerful speakers on the back of jeeps or half-tracks, could project previously recorded “noise” associated with a military group changing locations or operating in a certain position. In some scenarios the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops would “cover” a secret departure of a military unit to another location, and then they would move in and impersonate them. With the information from a mobile weather unit and an ideal setup location, sound transmissions could be heard by the Germans as far away as 15 miles (24 kilometers).
The 406thEngineer Combat Special
This fourth unit of 168 men was trained as combat soldiers. They had skills in demolition, construction, and provided security for the 23rd. With their bulldozers they could simulate the tracks of dummy military vehicles to add to the illusion of vehicle deployment.
On May 2, 1944, three units of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops sailed to England. The 3132 Signal Service Company Special was still training in the US.
Combat action started for the 23rd when a 15-man platoon from the unit was sent to Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 14, 1944.
All four components of this secret Army unit would be brought together in France in August 1944 when the 23rd participated in Operation Brest (August 20 – 27, 1944) to capture the French seaport of Brest from the Germans.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops existed to make “make-believe” believable to the enemy. They would manipulate sight and sound to bewilder the Germans. They had the capability of impersonating two divisions of thirty thousand men.
Creativity, deception, and courage were literally the order of the day. When the 23rd would impersonate other units, they set themselves up for attacks by the Germans who didn’t know who they really were.
23rd Headquarters Special Troops unit deceptions and activities needed to be kept secret from both the enemy as well as other Allied units.
Some of their tactics included set ups of dummy aircraft on dummy airfields, dummy artillery positions with dummy shells nearby, wearing their handmade shoulder patches to impersonate other units, setting up phony command posts with 23rd Headquarters Special Troops pretending to be US generals and high ranking officers, moving into the military position of an actual infantry or armored division so that the division could strategically move to another location, driving into a town with fake vehicle identification markings, or spending time in local pubs and seemingly during small talk and drinking give away secret and classified information to any potential spies in the vicinity. Their job was a creative and theatrical show as the men deceived, manipulated, mimicked, created illusions of sight and sound, and befuddled intended enemy targets.
In Operation Bettembourg (September 15 – 22, 1944) General George Patton’s Third Army planned an attack on the French city of Metz. A 70 mile (113 kilometer) gap along the US front line north of Metz was critically undermanned and weakly fortified. The US 83rd Infantry Division (ID) arrival at that location had been delayed. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops covered the gap by impersonating the US 6th Armored Division until the 83rd ID arrived.
From Operation Elephant (July 1 – 4, 1944) to Operation Viersen (March 18 – 24, 1945) the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops had participated in 21 WWII operations in the European Theater of Operations.
The Germans referred to this illusive military group as the Phantom Army.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops through their deceptions and impersonations have been credited with possibly saving the lives of an estimated thirty thousand Allied troops in WWII.
Information about the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was not declassified until 1996.
Many of the talented and artistic members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops went on after WWII and had successful careers in the Arts. Photographer Art Kane, artist Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, and fashion designer Bill Blass were a few of those who served in the secret unit with a mission of deception.
A WWII Art Contest
In 1941 the US Navy Combat Art Program and in 1942 the US Army War Art Unit were established. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was activated in 1944. Artists were being sought to fill positions in these and possibly other military units.
LIFE’SArt Competition for Men of the Armed Forces drew 1,500 entries from the Army, Navy, Air Corps, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Pictures were submitted by military personnel assigned throughout the US and included entries from as far away as Trinidad, Greenland, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.
Before serving in the US military Ralph Ingersoll [a name mentioned in the first part of this WWII story] was general manager of Time, Inc., and is credited in part with the founding of LIFE magazine. He would inspire the formation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and would be a staff officer in the deception unit.
Was this WWII art contest a secret plan between the US government and LIFE magazine to find needed artists using the pretense of a public competition?
The art contest did attract many very talented artists from all ranks of the US military.
LIFE magazine art contest First Prize winner Robert Clayton Burns and Third Prize winner Edward Arcenio Chávezhad successful art careers after WWII. No information has been found on Sergeant Bob Majors.
The book The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles (her father William Sayles was a member of the Ghost Army) is an excellent telling of the story of the US Army 23rd Headquarters Special Troops in WWII. The story is also told in a PBS documentary The Ghost Army.
Thank you to historian Dr. George Kelling who gave me the publication which announced the winners of the 1942 LIFE magazine art contest. It is from that publication that I started connecting the possible “covert” dots between the story of the Ghost Army and the art contest.
Excerpt about the navigator’s job from a 1943 Army Air Forces Southeast Training Center publication:
“They call him the Little Tin Guy.
His nerves seem all metal, his mind works like a compass, and his job is to get our bombers there and get ’em back, over land, over water, through weather and rain and hail and fog — through anything! He is better known as the navigator.
Without the navigator, bombers would be freight loads of destruction rushing at terrific speed through tractless space but rushing without purpose, without destination.
To be classified as navigator he must be a steady-nerved, cool-headed individual capable of making lightning decisions. … He must have the brawn and the wind to move around in a plane at high altitudes, forsaking his oxygen. He must be able to work complicated problems at dizzy heights where the average man cannot add three and six.
The best and most independent old pilots warm up to their navigators in direct proportion to the distance they have to fly. Flying in this war is almost all long-distance flying. The emphasis is on the navigator. The emphasis is on the Little Tin Guy!”
Adrian was born November 4, 1917, to Frank and Antonia (Paska) O’Konski who owned a farm in West Kewaunee, Kewaunee County, Wisconsin. He was one of 10 children. Two of his siblings, Genevieve and Lawrence, died as young children. Adrian’s grandparents had emigrated from Prussia [present day Poland] to the United States (US) in the late 1800s.
Adrian was a schoolteacher when he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces (AAF) in May 1942.
Appointed an Aviation Cadet and due to class scheduling issues, Adrian initially attended the Flexible Gunnery School at Buckingham Army Airfield at Fort Myers, Florida, before reporting to an AAF Classification Center. He graduated from gunnery school July 8, 1942.
After gunnery school, Adrian reported to the 52nd AAF Flying Training Detachment in Albany, Georgia. At this AAF Classification Center the aviation cadets were administered weighted psychological tests and mental examinations to determine those men who would best be qualified to become pilots, bombardiers, and navigators. After being classified a navigator, Adrian began weeks of elementary navigation ground and flying training before being sent to a navigation school.
After Classification Center graduation, Aviation Cadet O’Konski was sent to the AAF Navigation School at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana, for advanced training. The School had a difficult curriculum of ground and flying instruction which was 18 weeks long. In peacetime the course of instruction was given over a two year period. Instruction included plotting flight direction and alternate routes, monitoring fuel consumption, locating targets and alternate targets, flying in all types of weather conditions at different times of the day and night and at different altitudes. Pilotage, dead reckoning, radio communication, and celestial aspects of navigation were stressed.
In a November 1943 letter to “Jocko” (a nickname for his brother, Stanley), Adrian wrote of the importance of “Zero Zero” in training which is the ultimate objective of the navigator. He wrote, “Flew a Radius of Action today — that’s where you fly in one direction for a certain time. You then must change course and get to a certain base within a given time within 2 minutes or less of the time you estimate which is determined by the amount of fuel you got. Got there O–O on the way out 245 miles and was a mile and half minute off on the way back. Time is so important that we must keep it to the second. In celestial [navigation] each second off throws you a mile off — so you see what it means.”
Zero Zero navigation would play a major role in a July 24, 1944, combat flying mission to the Saint-Lô area of France. All the instruction and flying training would prove vital in the quickly and ever changing environment of combat flying. Comprehensive training before going to war can save lives.
Aviation Cadet Adrian O’Konski graduated from the AAF Navigation School on November 13, 1943. After graduation from a military school, aviation cadets were discharged from the US Army. As was the custom, a few days later the men were again sworn into the US Army as a Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt.).
2nd Lt. Adrian O’Konski’s first assignment as an officer was crew training in the B-17 Flying Fortress at Army Air Field Ardmore, Oklahoma.
In June 1944 the B-17 Walter Sumner crew with 2nd Lt. O’Konski as navigator arrived in England ready for combat. They were assigned to the US Eighth AAF, 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 368th Bomb Squadron (BS), based at Thurleigh.
[Seven weeks after the D-Day landings at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, the British, Canadian, and American units were at a stalemate against the German defensive lines around Caen and in the bocage areas of Normandy. Operation Cobra was an offensive launched by US Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, Commander of the First US Army, to push back and push through the German lines. The First US Army would then be able to advance into Britanny. The British Second Army and the Canadian First Army launched concurrent offensives with the US Eighth AAF which resulted in the success of Operation Cobra, and the Allied lines advanced.
The plan of attack for Operation Cobra included the bombing of German defensive lines by B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers. On July 24, 1944, over 1,500 bombers from the US Eighth AAF took off from England with a target destination of the Saint-Lô area of France. Bad weather and miscommunication between the US Army and the Eighth AAF as to the directional approach of US aircraft bombing the German lines resulted in friendly-fire deaths of American troops on the ground in the area.]
In a 2008 telephone interview* Sumner crew B-17 Waist Gunner Robert (Bob) Horste recalled the July 24, 1944, mission to Saint-Lô, France, in support of Operation Cobra. He said 306th BG B-17s were following a formation of B-24s. A smoke bomb dropped from the lead B-24 which was interpreted as a signal to other aircraft to begin dropping their bomb load. Bob spoke of 2nd Lt. O’Konski, realizing the bomb drop was three miles short of the designated target, got on the radio to notify Pilot Walter Sumner. Sumner radioed the information to the other aircraft, and the mission was halted. Bob surmised the smoke bomb released from the B-24 was accidental in that he says B-24 bomb bay doors could open in a jerking motion and that may have dislodged the smoke bomb from inside the plane as the B-24 readied for the bomb drop. He felt that many American lives on the ground were saved that day because of the action of 2nd Lt. O’Konski.
On October 2, 1944, now First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) O’Konski completed his required 35 combat flying missions with his final mission to Kassel, Germany.
1st Lt. O’Konski rotated back to the US and was assigned to Rapid City Air Field [now Ellsworth Air Force Base], South Dakota. It was in Rapid City that he met a local girl who would become his wife. On January 3, 1945, Adrian married Almeda Kollars at the Rapid City Air Field Base Chapel.
1st Lt. O’Konski completed his last operational WWII missions flying B-29 Superfortress Air-Sea Rescue over Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
For his military service 1st Lt. O’Konski was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After WWII Adrian and Almeda moved to Adrian’s hometown of Kewaunee, Wisconsin. Adrian’s mother, Mrs. Frank O’Konski, was one of the lucky mothers — her boy came back home after the war.
Adrian was elected Kewaunee County Clerk and served from 1949 – 1961 before going into the local banking business.
Adrian remained in the US Army Reserve after WWII and was Commander of the US Army 887th Field Artillery Battalion Armory in Kewaunee until his retirement in 1974 as a Major.
Flyers often carried with them on combat missions a symbol of something they hoped would bring them luck. A niece of Adrian O’Konski, Esther Nemetz, said Adrian always wore the same trousers when he flew and carried a rosary in his pocket. The rosary was a gift from his beloved sister, Anna.
Thank you to Karen and Sharon, the daughters of Adrian and Almeda O’Konski, for their help in researching this story. Photographs are used with the permission of the family.
*Thank you to Dr. Vernon Williams, Military Historian and Director, East Anglia Air War Project for access to his 2008 telephone interview with WWII B-17 Waist Gunner Robert Horste. For more information about Dr. Williams’ project visit East Anglia Air War Project.
Thank you to WWII 306th BG Historical Association Historian, Cliff Deets, and 306th BG Echoes Editor, Nancy Huebotter. Further information about the WWII 306th BG can be found at 306th Bomb Group Historical Association.
Thank you to the Kewaunee, Wisconsin, County Clerk’s Office for their research assistance.