From The Bronze Buckaroo to Lil Naz X – the Black Cowboy Rides Again

There’s a lot of ‘identifying’ going on these days. People ‘identify’ as being black, white, Native American… they identify as gay, straight, binary, non-binary. The whole world seems busy discarding identities or finding new ones; in fact, there’s one big identity crisis at the moment. And not only that, but there’s also then the minefield that is political correctness.

In fact, I probably trod on a few mines myself in the last couple of sentences. Is ‘Native American’ still an acceptable term? ‘Straight’ probably isn’t and ‘gay’ ditto. It’s confusing stuff, but it’s hardly new – you only have to look at the life of Herb Jeffries to see that.

To say that Herb was something of a trailblazer, who was way ahead of his time, is an understatement.

Herb Jeffries in cowboy mode

Herb Jeffries in cowboy mode

Herb gave voice to a whole swathe of society that was lost to American history and that to this day has been largely ignored… and he did it almost 90 years ago long before today’s ‘identifiers’ were even born.

So what was his claim to fame? Well, here’s where the ‘identifiers’ will sit up and take note… and the PC brigade will blanche with indignation.

Herb Jeffries was the world’s first black singing cowboy star. He became a household name – in black households at least – in films like Harlem on the Prairie, Two-Gun Man from Harlem and The Bronze Buckaroo, to name just a few of his movies.

You’ll find him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he was enrolled in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1979 for his work in promoting black society and culture.

But here’s the thing about Herb, the black singing cowboy. For one thing, he wasn’t African; in fact, he was Irish – well, half Irish – and Sicilian with some French, Italian and Moorish roots thrown into the mix.

In fact, the closest Herb came to being a black man was when he put on the Max Factor makeup that darkened his skin. Yes, Herb Jeffries hero of Hollywood’s black filmmakers, donned ‘black face’. What would the PC brigade (and Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau) have to say about that!

But before people start taking up cudgels against him for daring to darken his skin to make a living, it is worth bearing a few things in mind.

Herb Jeffries described himself as being ‘three-eighths Negro’. He became a singer in black orchestras during segregation and, unlike some light-skinned black performers, never tried to ‘pass’ as being white.

Herb was born in 1913 and given the deliciously extravagant name of Umberto Alexander Valentino in Detroit to a white Irish mother, who ran a boarding house, and to a father, Domenico Balentino whose lineage was as equally exotic as his son’s name, with Sicilian, French, Italian and Moorish blood pulsing through his veins.

There was also a bit of Ethiopian in Herb’s bloodline, too, just to make things even more interesting and to give some credence to his African lineage. Mind you, that bit of DNA is said to come from his father’s great grandmother who went by the name of Carey.

The makers of Who Do You Think You Are? Would have a field day with Herb.

Playing the dashing good guy in the white hat and the ‘Clark Gable moustache’, he was ‘the Bronze Buckaroo’, the African American answer to white singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and his role was a far cry from the usual subservient characters played by black actors.

Herb just loved cowboy movies and he looked pretty cool in a Stetson. It was he who came up with the idea to make movie westerns with all-black casts.

“Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of colour — had no heroes in the movies,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I was so glad to give them something to identify with.”

Herb Jeffries (second from left) in one of his westerns

Herb Jeffries (second from left) in one of his westerns

When it came to making the first of those movies, the director felt he wasn’t black enough and so Herb darkened his skin to appeal more to his audience. He did this in the 1930s, but it wouldn’t be until the Seventies that black cowboys returned and made any sort of impact on the big screen. Sidney Poitier dipped his toe in the western genre in Buck and The Preacher, but it was probably Cleavon Little, starring in the comedy Blazing Saddles, which made people take notice.

Only a few black cowboy movies spring to my mind as having made any real impact at the box office – think Morgan Freeman in the anti-Western Unforgiven; Jamie Foxx in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and, Denzel Washington in the remake of The Magnificent Seven. But there have been several dozen others down the years… yes, several dozen, as opposed to the thousands of cowboy movies with white actors.

In the real world though, black cowboys were far more prevalent than the silver screen would have you believe. It is estimated that 25% of cowboys were black in the Old West. Many of them had worked on plantations in the south and had become adept at managing animals. With the huge number of fatalities from the Civil War, their skills were in demand for cattle drives north.

And those drives were equal-opportunity affairs. Cowboys had to be quick to react to stampeding cows, to herding the stock and to the dangers posed by marauding Indians. In the dust-filled, high-octane whirl of a cattle drive, the colour of a man’s skin didn’t matter, it was how he did his job that counted.

So, those long drives fostered friendships among the cowboys, and there was equality, too… right up until their arrival in town, when the whole notion of equality went back out the window.

Ben PIckett, rodeo star

Ben PIckett, rodeo star

In town, a black cowboy was once again reminded of his colour – there were certain bars and restaurants he couldn’t frequent, and those easy familiarities he had enjoyed with his cowboy friends were left out on the range.

Ben Pickett, from Texas, was one of the best-known black cowboys. Born to former slaves in 1870, he would go on to become a star of the rodeo circuit. After years working as a ranch hand, he became a highly skilled cowboy, developing a unique method of catching and subduing stray cows. Pickett would control the animal by biting down on the cow’s lip, something he had seen dogs doing in the past.

He would later join the Miller Brothers 101 Wild Ranch Show and perform the trick as part of a routine for audiences around the world. Other black rodeo performers weren’t so successful. Rodeo competitions would be rigged to ensure black cowboys didn’t win, or they could only display their skills when most of the crowd had departed.

Due to racial prejudice, the whole notion of the black West has been airbrushed from history. The only dark skin tones are those of the Indian and the only black you’ll see is the colour of the hat worn by the bad (white) guy.

However, there is a gradual move to reclaim the black cowboy’s place in the history of the West. Movies and TV series are currently in production about the life of Bass Reeves, a black deputy US Marshall who was one of the most successful law enforcement officers of any colour.

Bass Reeves, Deputy US Marshall

Bass Reeves, Deputy US Marshall

Reeves is said to have arrested more than 3,000 criminals and shot dead 14 people in self-defence. Born into slavery in Arkansas, in 1838, he was taken by his owner to join the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.  Reeves later fled to Indian Territory, where he lived as a fugitive among the tribes until slavery was abolished in 1865.

He then moved to Arkansas where he, married and farmed for 10 years before being appointed a deputy, working for ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac Parker, and responsible for Western Arkansas and Indian Territory. He did the job for 32 years, having close brushes with death as he tracked and brought in very dangerous criminals.

Reeves is even said to have had his hat shot off his head and his belt shot off on separate occasions during his run-ins with outlaws. He died in 1910 and his adventurous life is now the subject of a movie based on Fred Staff’s stirring tales of the black deputy Marshall, and actor Morgan Freeman is producing a series based on Reeves’ life.

And then there’s Montero Lamar Hil, or to give him his more familiar moniker to a certain demographic, Lil Nas X … the latest black singing cowboy, of sorts.

Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X, rapper

Nas X is a 20-year-old rapper whose hit Old Town Road was on the US Billboard Hot 100 for 19 weeks. To say Nas X is hot is an understatement. As of September 2019 his song had been streamed more than two BILLION times and the video on YouTube had 350 million views.

Old Town Road references the Old West and Nas X seems to just love those cowboy costumes… which brings us right back to Herb Jeffries.  Maybe the black cowboy is once again having his day in the sun.

Now, who said history never repeats itself…

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The Secret Disaster That Made D-Day the Success it Was

As we approach the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we should also remember those who gave their lives before the Normandy Landings to ensure they would be the success they were…

 

It was 1944, and the troops were waiting nervously for the barrage on the beach to end. Their stomachs heaved as their clumsy landing craft rode the swell. Nearby, the support vessels and destroyers watched as their orderly line headed for the landing spot. The men concentrated on trying to overcome their sea sickness, their impending landing and the assault they’d have to make once they made it to shore.

This wasn’t the heart-in-mouth assault on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 – one of history’s greatest ever naval landings that signalled the end of Hitler’s dominance in Europe. No, this was a few weeks earlier – at Slapton Sands, a beautiful beach in Devon, England.

It was a Royal Navy and US Army training exercise called Operation Tiger – the last one before the real thing. But the events that would unfold on the morning of April 28 would prove to be a costly affair. Many of the men on those landing craft would never make it to dry land again. In a very short time, hundreds of them would be dead in the water.

Tiger was a week-long exercise meant to simulate as close as possible the actual landing on D-Day itself. Slapton was chosen because it had a beach of coarse gravel. It was a shallow lagoon backed by high bluffs and as such was almost a replica to what was codenamed Utah Beach on the Cherbourg peninsula.

Unfortunately, five German torpedo boats picked up British naval signals and moved into the area in darkness as nine landing craft were approaching the beach. British onshore batteries had actually identified the silhouettes of the German E-boats but, following orders, did not open fire for fear they would reveal their own positions.

US troops on exercise at Slapton Sands

US troops on exercise at Slapton Sands

What followed was like shooting fish in a barrel. Torpedoes slammed into the landing craft. One burst into flames, the soldiers on board being engulfed in burning fuel. It is said that 190 men were killed. Another sank within minutes – 411 men died on it –  while a third was badly damaged and limped back to port with 13 dead.

Many men survived the attack but drowned in the dark waters due to their inability to don lifejackets properly.

But the carnage didn’t end there. General Eisenhower had wanted his men battle-hardened and so had ordered that live rounds be used to bombard the beach before landing craft approached. But timings and communications were off between the controller of the landing craft and the commander charged with firing the shells onto the beach.

The result was carnage, with men rushing off landing craft and through white tape, which had been placed there to stop their advance – straight into the deadly barrage.

The number of dead at Slapton is disputed. Certainly many hundreds died – some put the figure at more than 700 dead – a  figure actually higher than the casualty rate on Utah Beach itself.

The seriousness of the episode was underlined by the fact that ten of the officers missing held ‘Bigot’ clearance – which meant that they knew the plans for D-Day itself; and for a period, the Normandy invasion was actually in doubt up until all ten bodies were retrieved from the sea.

There was the inevitable inquiry, which drew up some recommendations, namely that troops be given better training in the use of lifejackets and that rescue protocols be established to pick up survivors from sinking craft. Radio frequencies were also standardised between the various military wings.

Operation Tiger was a dreadful disaster, and it was hushed up for security reasons. The young men involved never did taste real battle, never fired a gun in anger nor even saw a German soldier, but they gave their lives nonetheless, by the hundredfold . . . on a pretty beach in the south of England.

Their loss was terrible, but not futile. As brutal as it sounds, their sacrifice helped pave the way for a smoother operation come D-Day itself. That’s not a pleasant fact to admit, but war is never pleasant and casualties come in all guises – and that includes young lads who died through the inefficiency of others and by sheer bad luck.

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The Dead Tramp Who Fooled Hitler

Operation Mincemeat

I posted a shorter version of this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now with extra information to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

 

The saying goes that dead men tell no tales, but that’s precisely what British intelligence officers hoped would happen when they dressed a dead tramp as a senior military officer and dropped his body into waters off the Spanish coast during World War II.

Operation Mincemeat was a bid to fool Adolf Hitler’s Military High Command during planning for the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943.

Landing on Italy’s steep shorelines against a well-entrenched, formidable opposition could have led to a massacre, which is why a plan was concocted to fool Hitler into thinking that the Allies were targeting Greece instead.

The tramp in question was Welshman Glyndwr Michael, a semi-literate drifter who made money as a part-time gardener and labourer.

Michael’s life seemed to be one filled with sadness. Born in Aberbargoed in Wales in 1909, by the age of 15 his father had committed suicide. Further tragedy followed with the death of his mother when he was 31.

Poorly educated and homeless, Michael moved to London. He died in 1943, after being found dead in an abandoned warehouse, killed after apparently eating stale bread which had been smeared with rat poison. The poison caused a build-up of fluid on Michael’s lungs, a type of death which would also be consistent with drowning.

At the time of Michael’s demise, Britain was struggling for survival in the war against Nazi Germany. For some time, a plan codenamed ‘Operation Mincemeat’ had been bubbling away at MI-5 – a deception developed to steer the German army away from Sicily, which was the planned point of attack for an Allied invasion of Italy.

Glyndwr Martin

Glyndwr Michael’s false identity papers

Michael’s body was kept in cold storage while the plan’s creators set about building a fake identity and a ‘life’ for the dead man.

An identity was created – ‘Acting Major William Martin’ of the Royal Marines. The name was chosen because there were several ‘William Martin’s’ listed on the Navy personnel list at the time, and it was hoped the Germans would check.

Life had been hard for Glyndwr Michael but it would be in death that he would achieve true greatness by playing the key role in one of the greatest hoaxes in military history

glyndwr-michael-911543405

The body of Glyndwr Michael being prepared for his mission

When Michael died he became Major Martin. His body was dressed in a naval uniform and an attaché case containing false invasion plans was handcuffed to his wrist. The spymasters feared that German intelligence might suspect the ruse, so further ‘proof’ of Martin’s identity was included with the corpse.

To make ‘Martin’ more convincing, a whole collection of documents, including a receipt for an engagement ring, a letter from the Major’s father, a warning about his overdraft from his bank manager and even love letters and a photo of his fiancée, ‘Pam’ were placed among his possessions.

Captain Norman Jewell’s submarine, HMS Seraph, was chosen to deposit the corpse in the sea. It wasn’t the first clandestine mission that he and his vessel were involved in.

220px-EwenMontagu

Commander Ewen Montagu

On October 19 of the previous year, he landed US General Mark Clark and a party of men in collapsible boats off the coast of Algeria, where they went to secretly meet with Vichy French officers. Jewell had to wait 24 hours to pick up Clark.

When the time came, the sea was too rough for the general to use the collapsible boats and so Jewell took the Seraph right up to shore, practically grounding the submarine, with less than ten feet of water beneath her keel, and collected Clark and his men.

In Operation Mincemeat, Glyndwr Michael’s body was loaded onto the Seraph and Michael or Martin went on his first and last voyage. On April 30, 1943, the submarine surfaced off the port of Huevla, in Spain, where Captain Jewell performed a burial at sea and set Michael’s body loose on the ocean.

As hoped, the current washed the body ashore. The hoax worked, and Hitler and his generals moved 90,000 troops from Sicily to Sardinia, leaving the way clear for the subsequent invasion.

The tramp Glyndwr Michael had fooled the German High Command, but he didn’t do it alone. Royal Navy Commander Ewen Montagu and a certain Nancy Jean Leslie also played their parts to perfection.

Montagu was in charge of the operation. It was his job to ensure that Michael made a convincing corpse. Leslie was an 18-year-old clerk at MI-5. It was her photo that was slipped into Martin’s wallet along with ‘love letters’ she and Montagu wrote to each other, signed ‘William’ and ‘Pam’ .

Jean Gerard Leigh

Jean Gerard Leigh, who helped fool the Nazis

“He was Willie and I was Pam,” Leslie recalled years later. “We went to clubs, films and dinner – always keeping tickets stubs etc.” She also inscribed a photo of herself in her swimsuit with a loving, “Till death us do part. Your loving Pam”.

It was only in 1996 after the true identity of ‘Major William Martin’ was discovered that Leslie (who became Jean Gerard Leigh after her marriage in 1946) came forward and identified herself as ‘Pam’.

Montagu died in 1985. On his deathbed, he was granted permission by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to read the official verdict of the operation.

Jean Gerard Leigh died in 2012 at the age of 88. Her part in one of military history’s greatest hoaxes should be acknowledged, but the role played by a dead tramp from should never be forgotten.

Operation Mincemeat was made into a movie, The Man Who Never Was, in 1956. Now, a new film is being made about the deception, with Colin Firth playing the role of Montague.

Michael’s body lies in Spain’s Huelva cemetery. His achievements in death saved the lives of thousands of British, American and Canadian soldiers, brought about the end of Benito Mussolini’s reign in Italy and altered the course of the entire war, not to mention spawning two feature films and several books… pretty good going for a dead tramp who never had a chance in life.

Dead men tell no tales…? Try telling that to Glyndwr Michael.

You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

 

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My granny, the Easter Rising looter

Children searching the rubble during Dublin's 1916 Rising

Children searching the rubble during Dublin’s 1916 Rising

I posted this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

 

To have a relative who was ‘out’ in 1916 – that is, someone who took part in that mad assault on the British Empire known as the Easter Rising – is something to be treasured.

Of course, there were plenty of other people ‘out’ in Easter Week – all of them risking life and limb, not for Ireland, though, but for themselves and their families as they smashed in windows and took whatever plunder they could carry from city centre businesses.

There were probably more looters out and about in Dublin that week than there were rebels holed up in the GPO. My granny, Maggie, was one of them – and we still have the dishes she ‘liberated’ to prove it: Four soup bowls with a Milan stamp on the back . . . they are testament to another, less noble side to the Rising.

Maggie was a teenager at the time, and a tenacious one, given that dishes weren’t the only things she set her sights on that fateful week.

The story goes that she was looting a butcher’s shop when she spied a prize shoulder of ham. Determined to get more than that and hauling the ham along, Maggie sought out more booty from the shelves. A man nearby kindly offered to hold the ham while she went foraging. Needless to say, that was the last time she saw that lump of meat.

Maggie was just one of many who ransacked city centre premises during the Rising. The first business to fall was Noblett’s sweet shop on Sackville Street, the plate glass window of which shattered as the last words of the Proclamation were fading on Padraig Pearse’s lips.

A shower of sweetstuffs,chocolate boxes and huge slabs of toffee were taken by the crowd in double-quick time, all the while ignoring pleadings from Volunteers and from Fr Michael Flanagan, from the Pro-Cathedral,who had arrived on the scene.

Women and children were the first to start looting on Easter Monday. Businesses in Earl Street and Abbey Street were ransacked while Pearse and Connolly sipped tea and ate sandwiches inside the GPO.

Granny's bowl

One of the bowls  my granny Maggie looted during the Rising

Clery’s, Elvery’s and McDowell’s jewellers all fell victim to looters, with the Illustrated Sunday Herald reporting: “McDowell’s, the jewellers, was broken into and some thousands of pounds worth of jewellery taken. Taafe’s, the hosiers; Lewer’s, Dunn’s hat shop, the Cable shoe shop, all were gutted, and their contents, when not wanted, were thrown pell-mell into the street.”

One witness recalls seeing people in the Gresham Hotel with jewellery they had bought from the looters. In his memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, Ernie O’Malley recalled arriving onto Sackville Street and being pestered by looters hawking their booty: “Diamond rings and pocketsful of gold watches were selling for sixpence and a shilling, and one was cursed if one did not buy.”

Meanwhile, Volunteers with batons tried in vain to protect business, and the journalist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who would not survive Easter week, stood atop a tram car and pleaded with people not to steal.

One Volunteer described witnessing looters carrying a stolen piano from the direction of Mary’s Lane. They ignored warnings to stop, and only did so after a volley was fired over their heads. The would-be plunderers scarpered, leaving the piano in the middle of the street.

The bizarre sights didn’t end there. Several Volunteers broke into the Waxworks Museum and were soon to be seen parading up and down in all manner of outlandish costumes.

The looting lasted for most of the week. Citizens had gone mad and no manner of threats or impeachments would disuade them from their path.

In his book, Dear, Dirty Dublin: A City in Distress, 1899-1916, Joseph O’Brien wrote that “according to police statistics for 1916, 425 persons were proceeded against for looting during the rebellion and 398 of these were either fined or imprisoned”.

The Irish Independent reported on May 11, 1916, how a mother and daughter had been, charged with being in illegal possession of “two mattresses, one pillow, eight window curtains, one lady’s corset.. one top coat, two ladies coats, five ladies hats and four chairs.”

In the same news report, it was noted that two ladies from Camden Street had been prosecuted for being in possession of, among other things, “3lbs of tea, 12 boxes of sweet herbs…some lemonade and cornflower.” The constable told the court that the accused told him: “we were looting, like the rest. We had a bit out of it, too!” They were sentenced to a month in prison each.

The testimony of Royal Irish Regiment Sergeant Flethcher-Desborough, found in the Bureau of Military History, states that “months after the end of the Rising, flower sellers and paper vendors round the pillar, sported fur coats and bejewelled fingers, which they could never have bought with the profits from their flower selling”.

The rebellion of 1916 highlighted two sides to the Irish coin – fearless patriotism and venal greed. We celebrate the patriotism and ignore the baser motives of those who were ‘out’ that week one hundred years ago. In my own family’s case, were it not for four soup bowls from Milan, those darker deeds may have been lost to history entirely.

 

You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

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A Village-ful of Generals…

I posted a shorter version of this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

 

To outsiders, the village of Ballinalee, in Co Longford, might seem like no great shakes, just a bump in the road, a blink-and-you-miss-it spot that you’re through before you even notice. Were they to consult a map of the county, the seemingly inconsequential dot called Ballinalee might be ignored in favour of grander spots, like Longford town, Ballymahon, Granard or the pretty heritage town of Ardagh.

But that would be a mistake because lovers of history will find pure gold in its environs. For starters, it is the site of Ireland’s first convent – the remains of which are still visible – but that’s not what gets the juices flowing. No, the real interest lies elsewhere. Put it this way, how many tiny villages do you know that can claim two generals to their credit, and another military hero born just a five-minute drive away?

That third one, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Monro, hailed from the village Clonfin. Born in 1700 into a military family, his own soldierly career would be quite lacklustre until 1757, when he achieved renown through the Siege of Fort William Henry during the Seven Years’ War between the British and the French. Situated on the frontier between the British Province of New York and the French Province of Canada, Fort William Henry was a key military position which found itself in the path of a combined French and Indian force of 8,000 men.

Monro and his 1,500 garrison of troops were soon besieged but managed to hold out for several days, earning the admiration of the French commander. Eventually, though, Monro had to surrender. However, while removing his troops under a flag of truce, his men were set upon by marauding Indians and decimated. Monro himself would survive the attack but die three months later through illness.

The dastardly deed was immortalised by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans, ensuring that Monro’s name would live on in literature as well as history.

Sean MacEoin, IRA flying column leader

Sean MacEoin

But Monro wasn’t the only boy from that small neck of the Longford woods who would achieve fame – there was also the ‘Blacksmith of Ballinalee’, Sean MacEoin, who would cause a bit of a stir, to put it mildly.

MacEoin was born a blacksmith’s son in 1893, outside Granard, and would go on to set up his own forge in Kilinshley, in the Ballinalee district. But smithying would soon take second place to his other duties, namely as the leader of an IRA flying column in the area during the War of Independence.

To say MacEoin had an eventful war is an understatement. Aside from being responsible for many attacks on British troops, he and 300 men are credited with repelling a 900-British force intent on burning Ballinalee in November 1920, as a reprisal for previous IRA raids.

In January, the following year, he was almost captured in a house by a 10-man British patrol, but MacEoIn fought his way out, hurling grenades and firing his pistol, killing the patrol’s officer in the process.

A few weeks later, at Clonfin, (home to Sir George Monro), MacEoin and his men ambushed two lorries carrying 18 British troops, killing and wounding their commanders. He showed his chivalrous side by ordering his men to treat the enemy wounded as British reinforcements converged on the scene. MacEoin’s actions would later be praised by his opponents and castigated by men from his own side.

The following month, March 1921, MacEoin was captured by the British at Mullingar station and sentenced to death (later commuted) for the murder of an RIC Inspector.

Sir Henry Wilson, assassinated by the IRA

SIr Henry WIlson

Michael Collins organised a daring rescue attempt in which six IRA men dressed as British soldiers and drove a captured armoured car into Mountjoy Prison, but MacEoin was not in the area that they had expected him to be and his would-be rescuers had to retreat under heavy fire.

Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, MacEoin joined the National Army and, in June 1922, was appointed general in charge of the Western theatre, where he helped subdue anti-treaty forces. He held several high-ranking positions after that, culminating in becoming Army Chief of Staff in February 1929.

MacEoin would have an equally successful political career, serving two terms as Minister for Defence and one as Minister for Justice.

It’s interesting to note that when he was facing the death sentence, MacEoin’s mother wrote a letter pleading clemency to her son’s neighbour, who just happened to be one of the most senior British officers in World War One.

Yes, MacEoin, the bane of the British Army, lived just a stone’s throw from the home of the local landlord, Field Marshall, Sir Henry Wilson.

Wilson’s military career was even more impressive than that of MacEoin’s. He was instrumental in drawing up plans to deploy British troops to France in the event of war and became Chief of Staff, Sir John French’s most trusted adviser during Britain’s 1914 military campaign.

He would later be Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s military adviser before becoming Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1918. Four years later, Wilson, who was also a Unionist MP, would be gunned down by two IRA men, Reginald Dunne, and the one-legged Joseph O’Sullivan.

As Wilson alighted from a taxi outside his home in London, the two IRA men pounced, shooting the Field Marshall seven times. As Dunne later testified: ‘I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled-up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point, Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he (Wilson) had collapsed.’

The Field Marshall had tried to draw his ceremonial sword in a bid to defend himself but was dead before the weapon had been fully cleared of its scabbard.

One little area of Longford and three extraordinary military careers…

What history… and what stories Ballinalee’s locals must know as they watch the outsiders speeding past in search of more worthy places to visit.

You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

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Dead Men Talking… How those Doomed for Execution Met Their Fate

I posted a shorter version of this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Death comes to us all, but it’s how we live right up to that very final moment that can often show our true character.

Private Eddie Slovik, the only GI to be executed by his own side in World War II (and of whom I’ve written before), raged at his imminent demise in the minutes before they strapped him to a post to kill him.

‘I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.

‘They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army. They just need to make an example of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con.’

Eddie was killed because he was a deserter, but he had never gone on the run, instead he had handed himself in and simply stated that he preferred prison to battle. That wish was denied him and, on January 31, 1945, he was executed by firing squad. Who can blame his anger at the injustice of it all?

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers

Others have taken a more sanguine approach to imminent death. In 1922, Erskine Childers was executed in Beggars Bush Barracks by the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War.

Childers was an historian and author of the acclaimed The Riddle of The Sands (a book I loved to read as a boy). In 1914, almost a hundred years ago to the day, he famously brought a shipload of weapons from Germany to Irish nationalists on board his boat, the Asgard. It was a pivotal act in Irish history and formed the basis of the armed struggle against British power.

Later, he was part of the delegation that traveled to London with Michael Collins to negotiate a treaty with the British. He later broke with Collins on the issue and supported the IRA nationalists who fought the Free State.

When Collins was killed, emergency laws were brought in ordering the death sentence for anyone caught with unauthorised weapons. Childers was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gun that had actually been given to him by Michael Collins as a gift back when they were on the same side.

The Free State wanted vengeance for Collins and so Childers paid the ultimate price. But Childers himself wasn’t one for revenge. On the eve of his death he asked to speak to his sixteen year-old son (also Erskine, who would one day become President of Ireland).

Erskine senior made his son promise that he would seek out every one who had signed his death warrant… and shake their hands. The following day he was was shot at the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. As he stood there, facing all those rifle barrels, he said one more thing to the men about to kill him.

“Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”

And then they shot him.

My grandfather was one of those who pulled the trigger. He never spoke much about it, only telling my father that it was a bad business.

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Others have faced death in similar fashion. A remarkable series of photographs show IRA Volunteers Paddy Moran and Thomas Whelan about to be executed by the British in Mountjoy Jail in 1921.

The men were sentenced to die for their parts in the assassination of British intelligence officers on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. They are pictured posing happily with their captors. In one photograph, Whelan even has his arm around one British officer. A few minutes later both prisoners were hanged.

In World War I, German spy Karl Lody showed his mettle when he was in the Tower of London awaiting death.

Born in Berlin in 1877, Lody graduated as a captain from the Maritime Academy in Geestemünde in 1904, but became ill and was never able to take up the post. He married an American. Under a forged U.S. passport he traveled Europe, speaking English with an American accent.

Karl Lody

Karl Lody

When war broke out, German intelligence thought he would be useful and sent him to spy on the British naval base at Rosyth, in Scotland.

Lody was eventually tracked due to his own carelessness – he stopped encrypting his messages and even wrote them in German. He was tried and sentenced to death.

The day before his execution, on November 6, 1914, he wrote a letter to his jailers, in which he stated:

‘I feel it is my duty as a German officer to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to the guards and sentries… Although they never neglected their duty, they have shown always the utmost courtesy and consideration towards me.’

So impressed was Lody by them, that he even left a sixpence tip to show his gratitude. The guards, apparently, found it all a difficult business… but they still managed to take him out and kill him.

We are strange, strange creatures. Stories such as these only reinforce the pride and shame we feel in our own humanity, leaving us with the faint hope that, come the day, we too might meet our Maker with such grace and fortitude.

You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

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Fake news isn’t new: The lookalikes who went to war

I posted a shorter version of this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now with extra information to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

 

We live in an age of fake news when we’re constantly warned not to trust everything we see or read. But fake news and deception have been with us a lot longer than the internet. You only have to look at how the Allies used it in two world wars to see that. And when it comes to faking it, using lookalikes to fool the enemy seems to have brought dividends, here’s how…

 

1: Monty’s Double

Growing up, I always had a great fondness for war movies, particularly those surrounding the Second World War. Of the many that I saw, one sticks in my mind a little longer than others. I Was Monty’s Double told the true story of the actor M.E. Clifton James who entertained troops during the war by pretending to be British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was Monty who helped crush Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert. He was then tasked with helping to plan Operation Overlord, the D:Day landings.

While Monty’s military career was going from strength to strength, James, who had been an actor before the war, was engaged in somewhat less stimulating work as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Pay Corps.  About seven weeks before D:Day, a newspaper article reported on how James had performed as Monty during a patriotic show.

monty

General Bernard Montgomery (left) and lookalike M.E. Clifton James

An Intelligence officer spotted the uncanny resemblance and soon Operation Copperhead, a scheme to misdirect Nazi spies, was hatched. James learned Montgomery’s mannerisms and speech and was even fitted with a prosthetic finger to replace the one he’d lost while fighting in World War One. Monty was a non-smoker and teetotal, so James had to give up the booze and the fags to be truly convincing.

And so the deception began. While the real Monty got busy planning the invasion of France, James was flown to Gibraltar where, at a reception at the Governor-General’s house, he dropped hints of’Plan 303′ – a bogus invasion of southern France – which were overheard by German agents.

With those little seeds sown, he was then whisked off to Algiers in North Africa, where he made several public appearances with General Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, just to give Nazi spies the impression that something fresh was afoot in that military theatre.

Five weeks later, D:Day took place with Monty as one of the main commanders. James found himself back in his old job with the Pay Corps, trying to explain where he had been for the previous five weeks.

It’s not known for sure how successful James’s ruse was, but the German’s were certainly taken by surprise on D:Day, so maybe it was indeed useful.

2: The Four Stalins

Meanwhile, over in Russia, Joseph Stalin was having something of an identity crisis. The supreme leader of the Soviet Union is said to have had no less than four lookalikes to act as his decoys to thwart spies and would-be assassins.

One, ‘Rashid’ was said to be so like the Soviet leader, right down to pockmarks on his skin from a bout of childhood smallpox, that he was dismissed from the army because of his uncanny resemblance to Stalin. He was later recruited by the NKVD to act as a decoy and would sit in at meetings and formal dinners.

Rashid’s fascinating job came to an abrupt end in 1953 when Stalin died. The lookalike moved out of Moscow, shaved his hair and moustache and tried to blend back into society. Despite all his precautions, though, he would still find himself being stared at in the street due to his similarity to the late leader. Rashid died in 1991, aged 93.

 

stalin-2

Felix Dadaev (left) and Joseph Stalin

Another body double was Felix Dadaev, a one-time dancer and juggler, who was injured in the fight to re-take Grozny from the Germans in 1942. Impressed by his resemblance to Stalin, intelligence chiefs faked Dadaev’s death and spirited him away to transform him into the Soviet leader.

Dadaev was almost 40 years younger than Stalin, but the rigours of war had aged him. That, combined with some well-applied make-up, did the trick. The Soviet leader’s voice was not so familiar to  Russian citizens, so all Dadaev had to do then was to practice Stalin’s mannerisms and gait in order to dupe onlookers.

His role, too, was to appear at ceremonies and rallies all across the USSR in place of the real leader. Once, he said, he stood at the mausoleum in Red Square to review a parade of athletes that filed past. No one suspected a thing. In an age when there was no television and people rarely saw their leaders up close, the deception always succeeded.

His most important appearance as Stalin was when the Soviet leader travelled to the Yalta conference in 1945. Stalin’s flight was shrouded in secrecy but Dadaev’s was in the full glare of publicity, making him a ripe target for would-be assassins.

In 2008, Dadaev (88) wrote about his wartime secret in an autobiography, Variety Land (I’ve searched for it, but can’t find the book). Military intelligence wartime archives and Russian state security backup his extraordinary story.

I can’t help imagining the conversation at a lookalikes’ reunion, if only one had taken place – Stalin 1 and Stalin 2 comparing moustaches, while Nos.3 and 4 discussed tips on backcombing to achieve the desired bouffant style.

3: The Ghost Army

It’s one thing to impersonate a well-known leader, but how do you go about fabricating an entire invasion force? The lookalike army was one decoy that really did hit the mark during World War II in the run-up to the D-Day landings. Operation Fortitude was split into two parts – Fortitude North was a plan to fool the Germans into believing that the Allies were planning to attack Norway. Fortitude South was aimed to fool Hitler and his generals into thinking that an invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais area of France, north-east of Normandy, where the actual D-Day landings occurred.

Generals George Patton (left), Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Montgomery (right)

Generals George Patton (left), Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Montgomery (right)

But how do you conjure up an army? The Allies used a combination of techniques. German military intelligence intercepted fake radio traffic that referred to movements of the fictitious First US Army Group as it gathered resources and mobilised for an attack. Dummy landing craft and inflatable tanks were created, as were fake aircraft and dummy airfields, all to give the Germans the impression of a large force being gathered to attack the Pas de Calais.

Heading this imaginary army was none other than US Lieutenant General George S Patton, a flamboyant officer who wore a pearl-handled revolver strapped to his hip. Patton was held in high regard by German military, who could imagine that such a distinguished officer would merely be used as a decoy rather than out in the field campaigning.

Juan Pujol Garcia (codename 'Garbo')

Juan Pujol Garcia (codename ‘Garbo’)

Diplomatic channels were also used to ‘leak’ information in neutral countries that could then be passed on to the Germans. The allies also operated a network of double agents, who fed the Nazi leaders all manner of fabricated information about troop movements. Juan Pujol Garcia (codenamed Garbo) created his own fake network of agents who provided him with information that he passed on to his German handlers about Allied preparations.

The plan worked. Hitler was convinced that the Pas de Calais would be where the main thrust of the Allied attack would come. As a result, when D-Day occurred, Hitler ordered that vital reinforcements be kept in reserve to counter the attack across the Straits of Dover at Pas de Calais that never emerged. This paralysis of Germany’s military machine gave the Allies the chance they needed to create a foothold on mainland Europe. Without Fortitude’s decoy army, the real one would have suffered even worse casualties on D-Day and may have failed in their objective.

garedunord_2535961b

Gare Du Nord station in Paris

4: The City That Wasn’t There

Creating a ‘lookalike’ army is impressive, but what about finding a city’s double?

No, I haven’t been at the magic mushrooms again. I refer to the ruse during World War I when the French built a fake Paris to fool German bombers.

An area about 15 miles outside the French capital was picked on a stretch of the River Seine, which was similar to Paris itself.

There, areas of the city around the Arc de Triomphe and suburbs like Saint-Denis were recreated. Wooden replicas of the Champs Elysees and Gare Du Nord were erected, and lighting effects, using white, yellow and red lamps, were employed to give the impression of machinery in operation at night and of trains and tracks which appeared real.

Special paint was even used to give the impression of dirty glass on factory roofs.

It was all in vain, though. The replica was still being built when the Germans made their final air raid on Paris in September 1918. Less than two months later the war ended.

Still, you can’t fault the French for effort…

 

You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

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The two Elizas: The Irish courtesans who really set the world alight

Lola_montez

Lola Montez

 I’m re-posting this article now to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. I’m still working my way through some production glitches, but please bear with me. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

 

 

Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl… so far, so true (and with thanks to Barry Manilow), but this particular Lola also happened to be one of Europe’s most beautiful and talked-about women, who married several times and who was linked to some of the most prominent men in Europe.

Lola Montez… the name is redolent of exotic allure, and she certainly didn’t disappoint. Lola’s reputation for being a beautiful and temperamental seductress who could wrap men around her finger was well deserved, but what wasn’t so well known at the time was that she was actually Irish.

Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born in Grange, Co Sligo, in 1821 (or 1818, depending on which articles you read) to Elizabeth Oliver, daughter of the former High Sheriff of Cork, and Edward Gilbert, an army officer, who took his family off to a posting in India soon after the birth.

Shortly after their arrival, Eliza’s father died of cholera. Elizabeth remarried the following year, and sent Eliza back to England to be raised by her husband’s relatives.

Young Eliza had an independent streak, a trait she showed in 1837, when she eloped with a Lieutenant Thomas James. After five years together, they separated and she became a professional dancer. In June of 1843, Eliza appeared on a London stage as “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer”.

Unfortunately for her, she was recognised and it soon became the talk of London that the sexy dancer called Lola was none other than Mrs. James, the wife of a British officer.

It all became too much and Lola headed to Paris where she worked as a dancer, enjoying the attention of a string of lovers, including composer Franz Liszt and author Alexandre Dumas. France got a little too hot, however, following the death of one of her lovers in a duel.

The stories of Lola’s cavorting are legion – she is said to danced her way around the globe, to have privately ‘entertained’ the Tsar of Russia and been paid one thousand roubles for her efforts. She is also said to have refused a fortune to be the mistress of the Viceroy of Poland and was even implicated in the alleged murder of a man on a riverboat in Fiji.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria

King Ludwig I of Bavaria

By 1846, Lola was in Munich and it is at this point that her career as a courtesan really took off when she caught the eye of Ludwig I of Bavaria. The story goes that Ludwig rather crudely asked her in public whether her bosom was real. Lola quashed any doubts by tearing open her dress to prove that it was.

From that point on Ludwig was hooked… so much so that he gave her a palace, lots of money from the public purse and made her Countess of Landsfeld in 1847.

Lola wasn’t slow in making her influence felt.

Europe at this time was fizzling with revolution. Rebellions would take place in Ireland, France and Belgium in that year and political intrigue was rife throughout the continent. Bavaria was in the thick of it.

For more than a year, she exercised great political power, encouraging support for liberalism at the expense of arch conservatives. In fact, her influence became so great that the conservative administration of Karl von Abel was dismissed because Von Abel objected to her being made a Countess.

Bavaria’s university students were divided in their sympathies, and conflicts arose, leading Ludwig, at Lola’s instigation, to close the university, which in turn led to further unrest as traders came out in support of the students.

In March 1848, under pressure from a growing revolutionary movement, the university was re-opened and Ludwig abdicated. Montez fled to London later that year where she met married George Trafford Heald, a young and wealthy cavalry officer.

However, the terms of her divorce from Thomas James did not permit remarriage while either party was living, and Lola and her new husband had to flee to France, and later Spain, to escape a bigamy action. This marriage didn’t last either. In 1851, Lola set off to make a new start in America.

For over a year she performed as a dancer and actress in the eastern United States, one of her offerings being a play called Lola Montez in Bavaria. In 1853, she moved to San Francisco, marrying journalist Patrick Hull in July.

That marriage failed, too. Nearly two years later Montez departed for a tour of the Australian gold fields. Here she performed her risque Spider Dance, in which she would find spiders in her clothing, peeling layer after layer off until she was naked. The routine caused outrage and rapture in equal measure.

Any hopes she had of bagging herself a rich miner came to nothing, though. All that Lola managed to get was a bad review from The Ballarat Times. After reading it, she attacked the paper’s editor with a whip – something which she was quite fond of doing, apparently.

Lola was thoroughly fed up with Australia and departed for America in 1856. Back in the States, she lectured and wrote several books on beauty and deportment. Though achieving a modicum of success, she was never again to enjoy the fame and influence of her days as Ludwig’s mistress. She contracted pneumonia and died penniless in Brooklyn in 1861.

It had been a whirlwind life for Sligo-born Eliza Gilbert aka Lola Montez, the woman whose dance routines and sex appeal had set stages alight around the world. However, she wasn’t the only Irish Eliza setting influential hearts aflutter.

Eliza Lynch

Eliza Lynch

There was another Eliza, a contemporary of Gilbert’s, who would achieve equal notoriety in South America and go down in history as the ‘Queen of Paraguay’.

Born in Charleville,Co Cork, Eliza Alicia Lynch left Ireland aged seven and moved to Paris. Ten years later she was married to a French army officer, who was posted to Algeria.

That didn’t last long and soon young Eliza Lynch was back in France, having left her husband. Eliza wangled her way into the salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte. it is suggested that she was a courtesan to wealthy men during this period.

Francisco Solano Lopez

Francisco Solano Lopez

In 1854, though, she managed to catch the eye of General Francisco Solano Lopez, heir apparent to the Paraguyan presidency and one of the richest men in South America.

Lopez loved her, and brought Eliza back with him to his homeland that same year.

The pair never wed, despite Eliza’s own marriage having being annulled. Nevertheless, she did bear him six children.

Francisco succeeded his father as president in 1862, with Eliza becoming de facto first lady. She would spend the next 15 years as the most powerful woman in the country, leading the way in the fashion, arts and culture scenes.

Things changed, though, when Lopez embroiled his country in the vicious War of Triple Alliamce, in which Paraguay was pitted against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

The war was a brutal affair in which up to 90pc of Paraguay’s men would die and almost 50pc of its women.

Eliza accompanied López during the entire war and was present when he and their eldest son were killed in Cerro Cora on March 1, 1870. She buried them both with her bare hands before being taken as prisoner.

Madam Lynch, as she was known, fled to Europe with her children, dying in obscurity in Paris on July 27, 1886. In Paraguay, she is celebrated for her courage and loyalty through that bitter war period.

Over a hundred years after her death, Eliza’s body was exhumed and re-interred in Paraguay’s national cemetery. However, it is only in recent times that the life of this extraordinary woman has been brought to light in the country of her birth.

Two extraordinary Irish women… two Elizas… contemporaries who made places for themselves on the world stage at a time when females were meant to be seen and not heard. Rare women, indeed, and ones worth celebrating.

You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

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The Seven Lives of Hitler

 

 

I posted this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler

 

On July 20, 1944, a one-eyed, one-handed German officer by the name of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg entered a wooden hut at Adolf Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair HQ in Eastern Prussia and placed a briefcase at the base of a map table where Hitler was standing. The case contained a bomb – one of two von Stauffenberg and brought with him. Due to time pressure, the Colonel could only arm one device before the meeting took place.

Unfortunately, a general who was present moved the case further away, behind a thick piece of wood which supported the table. The wood absorbed much of the blast and Hitler escaped with some cuts and bruises when the bomb exploded.

stauffenberg.

Col Claus Von Stauffenberg

There are so many ‘what-ifs’ about that day. What if the second bomb had been planted, what if the bomb had not been moved, what if the meeting had been held where it was originally intended – in a concrete bunker (the concrete would not have dissipated the force of blast the way the wooden hut did, and so would have proved lethal to all inside).

The failure of both the assassination and the military coup d’état which was planned to follow it led to the execution of almost 5,000 people, resulting in the destruction of the organised resistance movement in Germany. It would not be until April, 1945 that the world would finally be rid of the Nazi dictator when he eventually committed suicide.

People might bemoan that lost opportunity to be rid of the monster that was Hitler, but there were plenty of other lost chances down the years. Read them and weep

THE IRISHMAN WHO RESCUED HITLER: Carlow man Michael Keogh probably tormented himself until his death in 1964 because, back in the spring of 1919, he actually saved Hitler from being ripped apart by an ugly mob.

Keogh, an ardent republican, had enlisted in the British Army in 1913. He became a POW during the war, joined the Irish Brigade and then later enlisted in the German Army as he felt the Germans could advance the republican cause in Ireland.

Michael Keogh

Michael Keogh

He rose to the rank of Field Lieutenant. In his regiment, he met a certain Lance Corporal called Adolf Hitler. After the war, Keogh joined the Freikorps, an early fascist organisation sworn to smash Communism. He was duty officer at a Munich barracks when he was called to quell a riot that had erupted in a gym.

When he got there a crowd of some 200 soldiers were busy beating two men to a pulp.  Some of the attackers held bayonets and it seemed to Keogh that the two victims were about to die.

He ordered his men to fire a volley over the heads of the mob. The crowd dispersed and Keogh managed to drag the two victims out of the gym “cut, bleeding and in need of the doctor”.

Keogh recalled: “The fellow with the moustache gave his name as Adolf Hitler. It was the Lance Corporal of Ligny. I would not have recognised him. He was thin and emaciated from his wounds.”

After the war, he’d say: “If we’d been a few minutes later or Hitler had got a few more kicks to his old wounds or he’d been shot — what would have happened if we hadn’t intervened and he’d died?”

What if, indeed….

Private Henry Tandey, VC

Private Henry Tandey, VC

THE BRITISH SOLDIER WHO DIDN’T PULL THE TRIGGER:

On September 28, 1918, Private Henry Tandey, a British soldier serving with the 5th Duke of Wellington Regiment near the French village of Marcoing, reportedly encountered a wounded German soldier and decided not to shoot him.

Tandey, a native of Warwickshire, was actually awarded a Victoria Cross for “conspicuous bravery” during the action to capture Marcoing. He later told sources that in the final moments of that battle, as the German troops were in retreat, a wounded German soldier entered Tandey’s line of fire. “I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man,” Tandey remembered, “so I let him go.” The German soldier nodded in thanks, and disappeared.

A photograph that appeared in London newspapers of Tandey carrying a wounded soldier at Ypres in 1914 was later portrayed on canvas in a painting by the Italian artist Fortunino Matania. It is said that when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to Germany in 1938 to engage Hitler in a last-ditch effort to avoid war, he was taken by the Führer to his country retreat in Bavaria. There, Hitler showed Chamberlain his copy of the Matania painting, commenting, “That’s the man who nearly shot me.”

The authenticity of the Tandey-Hitler encounter remains in dispute, though evidence does suggest that Hitler did have a reproduction of the Matania painting as early as 1937.

On returning to England, Chamberlain contacted Tandey and recounted his conversation with Hitler. Tandey would later tell a journalist: ‘If only I had known what he would turn out to be. When I saw all the people and woman and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go.’

The evidence is somewhat sketchy it must be said. The destruction of military records makes it impossible to clarify the exact location of Hitler on 28 September 1918, though Hitler’s regiment was in the region of Marcoing at the time of the alleged encounter.

THE CAR ACCIDENT:  Otto Wagener, a Major General and one-time economic advisor to Hitler, wrote in his memoirs (Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant) that the future dictator of Germany was almost killed in a car accident on March 13, 1930. Wagener was a passenger in Hitler’s Mercedes at the time.

A heavy trailer truck collided with the vehicle, but the driver hit the brake quickly enough to avoid crushing the car. The insurance claim signed by Hitler was sold on eBay in 2000. If that truck driver had braked one second later, well, who knows…

Georg Elser

Georg Elser

THE BEER HALL BOMB: A Nazi Party tradition was its annual meeting at the  Bürgerbräukeller in Munich to celebrate the anniversary of the “Beer hall putsch” of November 8, 1923.

Georg Elser, a carpenter by trade and a communist sympathiser, used the event as the perfect place to try to assassinate Hitler.

He built a time bomb with which he travelled to Munich in the weeks preceding Hitler’s anniversary speech. Elser managed to stay inside the Bürgerbräukeller after closing hours each night for over a month, during which time he hollowed out the pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum, and placed the bomb inside it

Hitler would usually speak to the party faithful at length, but in 1939 he was forced to begin his speech earlier than expected in order to return to Berlin by train. Fog had closed Munich airport, from which he had later intended to fly.

The Nazi leader started his speech half an hour earlier than planned. Had he not done so he would not have left the cellar at 9.07pm but would have been blown to bits by the bomb which exploded at 9.20pm, killing eight and wounding sixty people.

Elser had by this time been apprehended as a suspected smuggler, whilst attempting to cross into Switzerland. The contents of his knapsack, including a postcard of the beer cellar, aroused suspicion. He initially denied any involvement but eventually confessed after several witnesses identified him as being a frequent visitor to the cellar. He was finally murdered in Dachau concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the end of the war in Europe.

 

MURDER PLOT ON THE TRAIN: Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE)  had extensive experience of derailing trains using explosives. The plan was dropped because Hitler’s schedule was too irregular and unpredictable: stations were only informed of his arrival a few minutes beforehand.

Another plan was to put some tasteless but lethal poison in the drinking water supply on Hitler’s train. However, this plan was considered too complicated because of the need for an inside man.

THE SNIPER:  Through a captured prisoner, who had been part of Hitler’s guard at the Berghof, British Intelligence learned the Fuhrer liked to take a 20-minute morning walk at around the same time (after 10:00). Hitler liked to be left alone during this walk, leaving him unprotected near some woods, out of sight of sentry posts. When Hitler was at the Berghof a Nazi flag, visible from a cafe in the nearby town, was flown.

The scheme called for the SOE to parachute a German-speaking Pole and a British sniper into the area surrounding the compound, wearing German army uniforms. The men would infiltrate the Berghof compound before moving to a spot where they were concealed, were within effective rifle range, and had a good view of the path used by Hitler.

A sniper was recruited and practiced by firing at moving dummy targets with a standard German Army rifle under conditions which simulated the actual assassination. An inside man was also found, who lived in Salzburg, 20 kilometres from the Berghof.

The plan was submitted in November 1944 but was never carried out because controversy remained over whether it was actually a good idea to kill Hitler: his poor attempts as a strategist meant that he was more of a help than a hindrance to the Allies. It was felt that whoever replaced him would probably do a better job of fighting the war.

Seven lost chances to kill a monster… Hitler had the Devil’s own luck, but luck runs out in the end – it’s just a pity it took so long in his case.

 

You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

 

 

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America’s Revolution: When Men Were Men… and Women Were Men, Too

Do you remember the days when men were men and we all knew our place in the world? No? Me neither. The thing about comments that refer to ‘back in the day’ is that the people who make them tend to have a very narrow view of the past and decide that what they experienced was a universal truth for all. These days we’re constantly being warned not to make assumptions and use broad brushstrokes when referring to people or events, but that warning equally holds true for the past, too.

‘Back in the day’– in Poland in the 1760s to be precise — General Casimir Pulaski was certainly a ‘man’s man’, with dashing good looks and bravery to the point of recklessness. Pulaski’s name first gained fame when the young cavalry officer engaged in battles, raids and sieges against the Russians in Poland, where Casimir was born in 1745. These military actions were of mixed success, mainly because of Pulaski’s habit of ignoring orders and because of a total disregard for personal safety.

Pulaski at Częstochowa, an 1875 painting by Józef Chełmoński

Pulaski at Częstochowa, an 1875 painting by Józef Chełmoński

Such actions were immortalised in oil on canvass by several artists of the day. “Pulaski at Częstochowa” an 1875 painting by Józef Chełmoński, captures the cavalry officer astride a galloping horse and bounding ahead of troops of cavalry. A portrait by Jan Styka shows the fighter resplendent in military attire.

Pulaski later took all that military experience and joined the Continental Army of George Washington, to whom Pulaski had been recommended by Benjamin Franklin after he met the cavalry officer in Paris.

Appointed a brigadier general following the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 — where Pulaski quite probably saved Washington’s life by leading a cavalry charge against British troops and staving off a rebel defeat — the Polish officer would go on to improve the training and discipline of the horsemen in the Continental Army, eventually being feted as “the father of American cavalry”.

The only snag with that sobriquet is that Pulaski could just as easily have been called its “mother” because dashing, brave-beyond-compare Casimir Pulaski may not have been the “man’s man” that many believed.

General Casimir Pulaski

General Casimir Pulaski by Jan Styka

New DNA research on Pulaski’s bones, conducted by experts at Georgia Southern University, suggest that the Polish and American war hero was actually intersex, having had congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition in which genetic females produce excessive amounts of testosterone, resulting in abnormal sexual development of the genitals, making them appear more masculine.

The condition hit the spotlight a few years ago when success on the running track by  South Africa’s Caster Semenya, an intersex athlete, led to her legitimate achievements being criticised because her condition gives her an ‘unfair’ advantage over her opponents, according to her detractors.

But back to Pulaski… Not only did Casimir have a female-shaped pelvis, according to researchers, but the skeletal remains also showed a more female structure and jaw. Lest anyone doubt the provenance of the remains, DNA tests matched them to Pulaski’s grand-niece.

The remains also showed evidence of horseback riding and the same wound to the head that Pulaski was said to have received during one battle. The researchers’ findings have now been made into a documentary for the Smithsonian Channel.

Pulaski’s career with the Continental Army was cut short when the Polish officer was killed in action in 1779 at Savannah after being hit by grapeshot. Casimir’s military resumé was a mixed bag of defeats and small victories; however, there is no doubting the Polish war hero’s bravery or influence on the development of American cavalry in the years that followed.

It’s a fascinating prospect to consider, that the person who achieved such military feats with lance and sabre was actually female, at a time when the closest most women got to sharp objects was a household blade or an embroidery needle.

But Pulaski wasn’t the only combatant in America’s War of Independence who was more than they seemed.

Virginia woman Anna Maria Lane (c.1755-1810) also fought for the Continental Army. She joined up along with her husband, John, in 1776. That practice of spouses enlisting together wasn’t as unusual as it sounds; other women accompanied their husbands during the campaign, too. The difference with Anna was that while they served as nurses, laundresses and cooks, she dressed as a man and fought on the battlefield.

The Battle of Germantown

The Battle of Germantown

The married couple was in the thick of the action, fighting in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Georgia. They also served under George Washington in October, 1777, at the Battle of Germantown, outside Philadelphia. That last point is intriguing because Casimir Pulaski fought there, too. One can’t help but imagine Pulaski and Lane facing the enemy side by side, neither knowing the other’s deep-held secret.

Washington must have had his suspicions about women getting involved in the fighting because he issued an order forbidding female ‘camp followers’  from accompanying men onto the battlefield. Anna Lane duly ignored the edict and fought anyway, but was badly wounded and left lame for the rest of her life.

But Anna didn’t let a gammy leg stop her from fighting beside her husband. Like Pulaski, John was wounded at the Siege of Savannah in 1779, but unlike the brigadier general, he didn’t succumb to his wounds. The couple continued to serve together until 1781 and later settled in Richmond, Virginia.

Anna’s military service was later recognised and she was granted a pension of £100 a year for life. According to historian Joyce Henry,  Anna’s pension record states that  “in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, [she] performed extraordinary military services at the Battle of Germantown”. That pension was far in excess of the average – Anna’s husband’s annuity was £40 a year – which would suggest that Anna Lane’s actions were uncommonly brave.

Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson (or Samson) also donned britches and disguised herself as a man in order to fight for the fledgling American nation. Born in Plympton, Massachusetts, in 1760, Sampson’s ancestors are said to have included passengers from The Mayflower.

At 5’9’’ she was tall for the times – the average height for women was just five feet – and was described as being broad, strong and with plain,  not particularly feminine features.

By the age of 18, Sampson was teaching in a school during the summer months and supplementing her income with basket weaving and by making wooden tools and sleds. Then, in 1782, she answered the call to arms, donned men’s clothing and signed up under the name Robert Shirtliff, enlisting in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment as a Light Infantryman.

Things got off to a disastrous start during her first military engagement, at Tarrytown, New York, in July 1782, when Deborah was shot twice in the thigh and received a wound to her head. Fearful that her true identity be discovered, she refused to allow doctors to treat her leg, preferring to dig one of the musket balls out herself using a penknife. The second ball was too far embedded and remained in place for the rest of her life.

The following year she was given lighter duties, acting as a waiter to General John Paterson until she was finally discharged from service in October 1783. Sampson’s post-war years were a struggle financially. For much of her life she teetered on the edge of penury, not helped by the meagre pension she had been awarded for service to her country. She died in 1827, in Sharon, Massachusetts, aged 66, after succumbing to yellow fever.

Pulaski, Lane and Sampson… three rare individuals who bucked the trend and showed that women (intersex or otherwise) had more than enough guts and grit when it came to the ‘manly’ trials of warfare.

They were trailblazers who put their lives on the line; who saw beyond the sexual prejudices of the day, and who refused to be categorised by what form their bodies took.  In so doing they, more than any other heroes from America’s War of Independence, were the true revolutionaries of their time.

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