GIs, Spies and the ‘Fighting Girlfriend’…

A few weeks ago I saw some photos that made for uncomfortable viewing. They showed a paedophile who had been chased by a mob of Irish parents. The man had been kicked and beaten. Blood ran from his nose as he  leaned, dazed against the roof of a car. The parents had learned that he was living in the area and that he had been seen outside a local school. They marched to the hostel in which he was staying and he fled, but they caught up with him and some of the fathers present let their fists and feet do the talking.

I’m a father-of-four, and part of me was glad to see such a vile person get a beating, but there was niggle, too, that I couldn’t quite shake. I think it might have been the image of normally law-abiding citizens breaking society’s rules so blatantly – the anarchy of mob mentality, however justified – unsettled me. Such mob law can infect even the most disciplined of people as history shows.

The scene of the Nazi executions at Dachau

The scene of the Nazi executions at Dachau

Take, for example, what happened when Dachau concentration camp was liberated in April, 1945 by soldiers from the US 45th Infantry Division… Upon their arrival, the GIs discovered more than 2,000 bodies stuffed inside 39 rail goods wagons. That sight, coupled with everything else they had witnessed in the death camp, proved to be the tipping point for these battle-scarred troops.

The soldierss gathered together 30 SS guards, lined them up against a coal yard wall and machine-gunned them. Others were shot elsewhere in the camp. Some of the freed prisoners also exacted their revenge by beating their former tormentors and killing them.

A letter has recently emerged, written by Capt David Wilsey, an anesthesiologist in the Seventh Army, which describes the horrors he saw in Dachau and the revenge meted out by GIs to the Nazis. An article in the New Republic recounts his testimony to those events. On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, Wilsey sent a seven-page letter to his wife, Emily, describing what he witnessed.

He wrote: ‘I saw captured SS tortured against a wall [by U.S. soldiers] and then shot in what you Americans would call ‘cold blood’—but Emily! ‘God forgive me if I say I saw it done without a single disturbed emotion BECAUSE THEY SO HAD-IT-COMING after what I had just seen and what every minute more I have been seeing of the SS beasts’ actions’.

Some have described these acts as shameful, but it’s easy to say that from this point in time. The Nazi guards at Dachau were responsible for the murder of 35,000 innocent people. So, put yourself in those GIs’ shoes and you might have been cheering them on – or worse, in the thick of the blood lust.

In Irish history, one day of revenge stands out more than others . . . that of November 21, 1920, during the War of Independence.

For quite some time, the republican leader Michael Collins had been monitoring British spies in the capital. When he had gathered enough intelligence about their addresses and their movements he sent his hit men, ‘The Squad’ or ‘The Twelve Apostles’ as they were also known. to track them down.

The Cairo Gang

The Cairo Gang

Among the targets were members of the ‘Cairo Gang’ (so-called because of their patronage of the Cairo Cafe on Grafton Street and from their service in British military intelligence in Egypt and Palestine). Within a few hours 14 British officers had been killed, sending shockwaves through the Crown forces.

A reprisal was called for. Later that day, Dublin and Tipperary were playing a charity football match at Croke Park stadium. British Auxiliary forces marched into the ground, ostensibly to search the thousands of  supporters present for weapons.

The troops opened fire almost immediately, killing 14 people. Among those who died were Tipperary players Michael Hogan  and Thomas Ryan, said to have been shot on his knees while reciting an act of contrition to Hogan.

The killings were followed by more deaths later that evening in Dublin Castle when three IRA officers  – Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune -were beaten and shot by their captors for supposedly trying to escape.

The events of the day became known as Bloody Sunday. The revenge meted out by the British backfired. The outcry was loud and fierce and only prompted further support for the IRA.

However, there is one act of revenge the effectiveness of which could never be questioned. It involves one Mariya Oktyabrskaya, a Soviet housewife who decided to get proactive when she received notice of her husband’s death in battle in 1943.

Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Rather than go into mourning for his loss, Mariya sold all her possessions and then offered to honour her husband’s memory by buying the Soviet state a new T-34 tank. . . with one proviso – that she would be the one to drive it into battle against the Nazis.

The military agreed, smacking their lips at the prospect of such a propaganda  coup.

After completing her tank driver’s course, Mariya rolled her T-34 – nicknamed ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ – into battle.

Male officers scoffed at this propaganda stunt, but Mariya’s confident command of the tank soon shut them up – as did her bravery, which she showed at the Second Battle of Smolensk, where she led her unit straight into enemy fire.

Shortly after, during another battle, her tank got separated  when a German shell broke the ‘Fighting Girlfriend’s’ tracks. She and her crew had to conduct repairs in the thick of enemy fire, while keeping the enemy at bay with their guns.

In March of 1944, Mariya was hit by shrapnel while conducting more repairs to her tank during a battle. She died of her wounds two months later. Shortly after that she was made a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Had Mariya’s husband not fallen in battle against the Nazis she probably would never have had the opportunity to make the Germans reap the whirlwind of her revenge.

The love of her husband propelled Mariya into the thick of the action with just the beast she needed. I suppose you could call it a case of tank’s for the memories…

It’s okay, you can stop groaning now.

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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15 Responses to GIs, Spies and the ‘Fighting Girlfriend’…

  1. Tanks for the memory … what a chuckle! A very thoughtful piece, David. I suppose none of us knows what we might do under such terrible circumstances. The thin veneer of civilization can retreat in a flash whether man or woman.

  2. cffullerton says:

    All that brilliantly written, incredibly evocative history and it comes down to howling laughter! Tanks, indeed. You’re too much…

  3. I guess it’s a very human thing to find solace in revenge – especially if the justice system lets you down. It’s certainly provided a theme for many a good book or film. I’ve researched several members of the Cairo Gang, btw, and I’m convinced they were mostly psychos.

  4. I remember you writing about one who served in Palestine, in Running With Crows. I can’t remember his name, but I think he was the one you hinted may have been responsible for the murder for which William Mitchell was executed

  5. Carol says:

    After the Abu Ghreib scandal, I read an article citing the results of experiments that showed that anyone – anyone at all – could become a torturer under conditions where they hold absolute power. As Mary said, I doubt anyone could be sure what they’d do if faced with such horror.

  6. When reading about events and actions such as this, there is a part of me that often says “There but for the grace of God go I.” We never truly know how we will act or react under certain circumstances until we actually find ourselves in them. Will we be noble or savage, merciful or vengeful? I very much hope that I am never put into a position where I will have to find out the answer to that question.

  7. I think in our own little ways that we are put in such positions every day, it’s just that the canvas is bigger during wartime, and with more deadly consequences. Today, we fight our own smaller wars for survival, but the moral tests are still there, just less extreme

  8. julianfbell says:

    Great piece, David. I particularly enjoyed what you said about Bloody Sunday. Am I right in thinking that one of the GAA cups is named after a victim of the Croke Park shooting? I was very moved when Queen Elizabeth visited Croke Park during her state visit to Ireland – a courageous and powerfully symbolic gesture of reconciliation, given that those troops opened fire in the name of her grandfather.

    • Thanks Julian. Yes, the GAA football trophy is the Sam Maguire Cup. Sam was the head of the IRB in England and a staunch republican. I used him as a character in my book A Time of Traitors. I thought the Queen’s visit to Croke Park was especially poignant. In fact, the whole visit was great. The Irish people really welcomed her and the Duke. Having said that, the visit of President Higgins to England was just as successful, with the royals and everyone else pulling out all the stops for what was a hugely significant occasion.

  9. julianfbell says:

    PS For those who don’t know, I recommend very highly David’s book A Time of Traitors which is set around the time of Bloody Sunday – it’s a cracking read, with very sympathetic characters and truly brings the period to life!

  10. Thanks Julian, I hadn’t seen that message when I wrote my own above. Much appreciated 🙂

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