World War II was one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Millions took part in the fighting, and sadly, millions died. Unsurprisingly, there are lots of amazing stories from the conflict, though some are more well known than others. New stories surface constantly, such as the recently uncovered encounter of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler. Here are 10 stories that are less well known but no less amazing.
10The Soham Railway Explosion
On June 2, 1944, just before D-Day, driver Benjamin Gimbert and his fireman, James Nightall, were in charge of a freight train delivering bombs to the USAF in White Colne, Essex, UK. As they approached the village of Soham in Cambridgeshire, Benjamin realized that the wagon coupled directly behind the locomotive was on fire. That’s never a good thing, but this fire was particularly dangerous, given that the train was carrying tons of explosives.
He stopped the train, and James came down from the footplate to uncouple the blazing wagon. Only 128 meters (420 ft) from the station in Soham, they attempted to ditch the wagon in the open countryside before the bombs exploded. They failed, and seven minutes after Benjamin originally saw the fire, the wagon exploded. It flattened the station building, damaged 600 others, threw Benjamin almost 200 meters (about 600 ft) away, and killed two other railway workers who had stayed to stop another train that was headed for the wagon’s path of destruction.
Despite the crater the explosion created that was 6 meters (20 ft) deep, the track was up and running again by that evening. Both Benjamin and James were awarded the George Cross, the highest award for non-combat bravery in the British and Commonwealth. Their actions are commemorated with two different plaques in Soham.
9The Ready-Made British Resistance
After the disastrous campaign in France in 1940, the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and the Free French Forces found themselves critically short of vehicles, ammunition, and other equipment. This led to the formation of the well-known Home Guard, but Winston Churchill also ordered the creation of a secret, underground army that was known simply as the Auxiliary Units. They remained secret until the 1990s.
Its 3,500 members were recruited mainly from the civilian population and trained in a variety of tasks, including stealth killing, explosives, unarmed combat, and sabotage. To avoid suspicion, they were assigned to Home Guard units. Despite the shortage, they were equipped with the best weapons available, including Thompson submachine guns and PIAT anti-tank rockets. They were also given silenced pistols and rifles, sticky bombs, and single-shot cartridges that could penetrate steel at almost 100 meters (over 300 ft). Their operation bases were built 4.5 meters (15 ft) underground and held 6–8 men each, plus all of their equipment and weeks’ worth of supplies.
In the event of an invasion, the plan was to attack German communication lines, railways, airfields, fuel and supply dumps, and senior German officers. Perhaps most chillingly of all, they had orders to kill any British person collaborating with the occupying German forces. One advantage of the units was that the German army would not expect organized resistance so soon after an invasion. The fatality of such a mission was certain, but luckily, the Auxiliary Units never went into action, although many of its men joined other units after it disbanded.
On February 18, 1944, 18 of the legendary Mosquito fighter bombers of the Royal Air Force, Royal New Zealand Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force embarked on a plan to attack the Amiens Prison in northwest France to free the 700 French Resistance members imprisoned there. The weather that day was so bad that one of the RNZAF pilots thought that it was “either some form of practice or some form of practical joke.” Nevertheless, the group flew across the English Channel at just 15 meters (50 ft) above the waves, though five had to turn back due to radio and engine problems. Now down to 13 planes, Group Captain Charles Pickard carried on with the raid.
At 12:01 PM, the bombers attacked the prison wall to allow the prisoners a route of escape. They went on to demolish the blocks where German officers were standing guard, many of whom were killed or wounded. Two Mosquitos also attacked the nearby train station, buying the prisoners time while the German garrison was distracted. Only two aircraft were lost in the attack, including the one flown by Pickard. While 258 prisoners escaped, 102 were killed in the raid and another 155 were captured. Even today, no one is sure who ordered the raid or why, but the sheer skill and courage shown by the Mosquitos is undeniable.
7Hermann Goering’s Anti-Nazi Brother
Albert Goering was the brother of infamous Nazi leader Hermann Goering, the man who famously vowed to destroy the RAF. Unlike his older brother, Albert was not a Nazi and often risked his life to save those the Nazis hated. He moved to Austria after the Nazis rose to power and often spoke out against the Nazi party, but when Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Hermann kept the Gestapo away from Albert. When the Nazis marched into Vienna, Albert rushed to distribute exit visas to Jewish residents and even went head-to-head with Nazis who were forcing elderly Jewish people to do degrading things, such as washing the street.